May’s “British dream” simply shows she is sleeping through the housing crisis

In Theresa May’s address to the Conservative Party conference last week, the phrase “British Dream” cropped up a grand total of 22 times. It is not a new form of words however; previous echoes of the same phrase were spoken in the past by Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard and indeed Labour’s Ed Miliband in keynote speeches of their own. Future studies may show that saying the words out loud is, in fact, akin to putting the final nail in your own political coffin.

The British don’t do “dreams” well. Rather than the aspirational echoes of the American variant, to shout about the British dream is to risk seeming brash; we can never quite get over the fact that (as Hamlet told us) “to sleep, [is] perchance to dream”. If you are dreaming, you are asleep. If you are asleep, you literally have your political eyes shut to the true state of this nation. Mrs May needs to wake up.

The Labour Party is waking up. The Labour Party’s eyes are open to the true state of the biggest horror facing our country: the housing crisis. Yet despite shouting loudly in opposition, there are many that feel that future Labour housing policy can still be bolder. The time to be brave is indeed the next manifesto.

As Labour gets braver and cracks on in preparing for government, the Tories are snoring through some of the biggest social problems to affect the country since 1945. The Tories are dreaming when they should be helping the 120,000 children that will be sleeping tonight in temporary or emergency accommodation.

May

That’s right, 120,000 children in 78,000 families don’t have a permanent place to call home tonight. Many of these families in temporary accommodation are trapped there; evicted by landlords as rents have risen beyond their ability to pay. This a problem caused not by greedy landlords in the main, but by rents rising – so landlords can pay bills and mortgages – as DHA rate remain frozen until 2020. In parts of south east England, average rental market value is now already 40 per cent above the frozen rate of housing benefit. This has cast thousands of families into abject housing poverty, arrears and evictions.

That is not to say that there are not greedy landlords. Of course there are. But Labour has to recognise that the majority of landlords (59 per cent) only let out one home. For most of these landlords, that one rental is a pension pot in an age where the state pension is in real risk of becoming a myth. Labour needs to look more carefully at taxation and rent controls for business landlords, those nine per cent of landlord-magnates with over five properties.

In a recent study for Shelter it was revealed that 63 per cent of landlords said “no DSS”, meaning they would not accept tenants in receipt of social security payments. That seems to me to be far lower than the actual figure, especially in London and the south east. Calling six local estate agents in Kent to find out how many of their advertised two-bedroom private rentals accepted DSS, I found a grand total of one available property that might consider an applicant on benefits. Of course, that was an immediate “no” for a benefit-receiving applicant with children. Perhaps “No DSS, no children”, is the new “No blacks, do dogs, no Irish” – the true social scandal of our age. A Labour government could introduce policy whereby the only stipulation for applying to rent a property was your ability to pay.

So, we must fix that ability to pay. The government needs to undo the freeze on housing benefit; pump more money into local government for building council houses; issue fines on councils that house families in B&B accommodation for more than the legal six weeks; introduce Ofsted-style inspections of local authority housing stock with the possibility of Whitehall taking over when councils fail to meet standards; place tough rent controls on landlords who let out more than five properties, in order to encourage the release of housing stock; have authorities act as guarantors for DSS recipients with references and/or a clean history of payment; and ban a landlord’s right to select tenants based upon anything other than ability to pay.

There you are John Healey: sorted.

This article was first published on Labourlist.com on 9th October 2017

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