Housing out of reach for public service workers!

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Conference
2019 Local Government Service Group Conference
Date
20 February 2019
Decision
Carried as Amended

This local government service group conference recognises that high housing costs and affordability are among the biggest issues facing the workforce in the south east and nationally, affecting where members can live, what they can access and what they can afford.

According to the National Housing Federation, there was a shortfall of over 85,000 homes in the south east between 2012 and 2016, the highest in the country after London. The average home is over £360,000, 12 times the average salary; and the average monthly rent is £994. Data reported by The Guardian found that 40% of houses sold under the Right to Buy are now in the private rented sector, tens of millions of pounds are being paid by local authorities to rent former council homes to house homeless families, and some councils have bought back their former homes at more than six times the amount they sold them for.

A report by the Office for National Statistics confirms that the south east has the worst affordability rating for median house prices compared to median earnings outside of London. A UNISON study also shows that saving money for a down payment on a property would take over 52 years in some parts of the south east, making it virtually impossible for a huge number of UNISON members to buy their own home.

Conference notes that the worsening affordability crisis is a result of failed housing policies and cuts to the “affordable housing budget”, which have led to a drastic decline in the number of new social rent homes built nationally. The shortage of genuinely affordable homes means that thousands of people are on social housing waiting lists. Thousands more are forced to live in overcrowded or unsuitable homes where they are exposed to health and safety hazards. For the people caught in the trap of ever increasing housing costs and stagnating wages, the stress put on all areas of life are all too real; the human misery of this expressed all too vividly by the scandal of homelessness doubling under the Tories since 2010.

Many towns and cities are out of reach for public service workers due to the rising costs of housing compared to wages. In the private rented sector, where rents are un-regulated and tenancies are insecure, research by Shelter shows that rents rose by 16% between 2011 and 2017 in England, compared to average wages which rose by only 10% over that period. The situation is worse in some areas, including Elmbridge, Surrey, where rents have risen by 21% while wages are down by 15%; and in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, rents are 19% higher while wages have dropped by 9%.

Conference is concerned that the high costs of housing, coupled with real term cuts to public service pay, tax credit and Universal Credit changes are blighting the lives of our members. This is putting a further financial strain on our members’ household budgets and eroding their living standards. More workers are spending a significant proportion of their income to meet housing costs, leaving less money for other household essentials and exposing them to hardship, poverty and even homelessness. Many workers face lengthy commutes to work, high costs of travelling and pressure on their ‘work life balance’ because they simply cannot access social housing or afford a decent home near their place of work.

Conference is concerned that despite the government’s pledge to “fix the broken housing market”, it has failed to comprehend the ways in which social housing could be used to tackle the housing crisis. The government’s housing policy remains focused on helping the privileged to buy their own home through schemes such as the Right to Buy and Help to Buy, and encouraging the development of costly and so called “affordable rent homes” priced at 80% of market rates. It is not doing enough to help those on modest incomes access decent and secure housing.

The Right to Buy and barriers to new council house building have resulted in reduced democratic accountability with the housing sector. This stealth privatisation needs to be reversed as a matter of urgency and Conference believes a massive council house building programme is essential to achieve this. Recent measures to provide housing associations with longer-term strategic partnership funding from 2022, to build more “affordable homes”, including social housing, and the scrapping of the housing revenue account borrowing cap, which prevented councils from borrowing to invest in new homes, are steps in the right direction. However, they are not sufficient to address the depth and scale of the crisis unless the Right to Buy is suspended, as in Scotland and Wales, and ultimately ended as soon as practicable, and councils are supported with significant grant funding to build more homes for people on modest incomes.

With household growth projected to be higher in the south east, London and parts of the midlands over the next decade and government funded social house building at an all time low, there is an urgent need for innovative, bold and radical measures to resolve the deepening housing crisis.

Conference calls on the local government service Group executive to work with the NEC and the community service group executive to:

1)Undertake further research across UNISON to find out the implications of housing costs and affordability on local government members and use the evidence to campaign for improvements in housing policy

2)Continue to campaign for staffing levels which enable housing workers to do their jobs safely and effectively.

3)Continue to make the case for decent, secure, safe and affordable housing – particularly those provided by Councils and housing associations to ensure there are sufficient homes for workers on modest incomes;

4)Highlight the cost of housing in all national pay campaigns to ensure that our members have additional income to pay for their housing costs and campaign for £10 an hour minimum wage;

5)Produce a housing manifesto setting out UNISON’s policies on dealing with the housing crisis and use this to galvanise support for UNISON’s campaign for improvements in housing policy.

This Conference further calls on the Service Group Executive Committee to press the National Executive Committee to lobby the Westminster Government and devolved administrations where appropriate to:

a)Give councils and housing associations significant grant funding and increased financial flexibilities to enable them to build more homes at scale;

b)Establish a new definition of affordable housing linked to people’s income not market prices, and scrap the so called affordable rent homes, which makes some social homes inaccessible to the low paid;

c)Reform the land market to make it cheaper and easier for local authorities to build new homes;

d)Set up a “homebuilding capacity fund” to help councils to build capacity to deliver a new generation of council homes, to ensure that they have the resources to re-create architectural, design and engineering teams and modern direct labour organisations to boost house-building;

e)Introduce stronger measures to regulate the private rented sector, including indefinite tenancies, a system of rent caps to limit rent increases, and increased rights and protections for private renters to improve standards and affordability in private renting, as Scotland has done;

f)End the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme as soon as practicable.