Speaking at a New Statesman and National Housing Federation (NHF) fringe event at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, John Healey accused the government of a “complete lack of action” on housing, adding that the Conservatives had “no plans” to implement recommendations from the Hackitt Review, the independent review of building regulations and fire safety commissioned after the Grenfell disaster. In a speech which emphasised the importance of election readiness, the shadow secretary of state for housing said: “It is clear that the Tories will not talk about housing in a campaign. Why would they? There’s been failure on all fronts… We’re going to make housing centre stage in a general election. If we don’t, no one else will.”
Despite his criticisms of the government over inaction on the review, at the time of its publication, Hackitt received heavy criticism from many people on the Labour benches. David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, described it as a “betrayal and a whitewash”, after it failed to ban combustible cladding, a decision which Healey himself said “beggars belief”, and represented “a missed opportunity to set new safety standards that ensure a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire never happen again.” The shadow housing chief said “ministers cannot simply accept this report” because “the recommendations are too weak.”
Kate Henderson, chief executive of the NHF, the body representing social housing associations in the UK, highlighted figures which showed the extent of the housing crisis. Research by the charity Crisis shows that 145,000 new homes are needed each year to ameliorate the crisis of affordability, 90,000 of which need to be homes for social rent. In 2018, 6,000 homes were built for social rent, only 2,640 of which were council properties. More than a million people are currently on social housing waiting lists. The price of buying and renting has ballooned in the last two decades, with rents increasing by 19 per cent between 2007 and 2017, with no rise in real incomes.
Also speaking on the panel, Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said that there were “177 applications for every council house that becomes available now”, and that Leeds was “losing 600 homes a year” through Right to Buy. Healey repeatedly highlighted Labour’s plan to follow the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales in scrapping Right to Buy. He also promised to “dump that bogus definition of affordable that the Tories use”, which defines affordable housing as costing less than 80 per cent of market value. Labour has promised to link measures of affordability to average incomes a local area.
Last year, the party’s Housing for the Many report promised to build 1,000,000 “genuinely affordable” homes over the course of two Parliaments and create a separate government department for housing, with its own secretary of state and team of junior ministers. Currently, a junior minister for housing, Esther McVey, works under the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick.