Restoring direct investment in public housing is the only way to tackle the chronic housing crisis that is crippling the UK and disproportionately blighting the lives of young people, women and Black people, UNISON’s conference heard this morning.
In a lengthy and emotional debate, speaker after speaker highlighted the consequences of millions of workers and their families living in expensive, insecure and overcrowded homes.
Conference heard that “decent housing, safe, secure, accessible, comfortable homes are what we all deserve. It’s a fundamental human right”.
The debate was taking place against the backdrop of last week’s Grenfell Tower tragedy and it was preceded by a statement from Kensington and Chelsea branch secretary Sonia Howard.
She told delegates: “We have to make sure those truly responsible for this tragedy are prosecuted, not our members being scapegoated.”
She noted that UNISON members working for the council had been on the scene supporting those affected by “this avoidable tragedy” and hundreds had volunteered.
The blame, she added, lay with “the politics of austerity, privatisation and a lack of building council houses, with renovation on the cheap.”
Sending “heartfelt solidarity” from the UNISON branch to Grenfell victims and families, she declared: “The law needs to change to prevent further disasters”.
“Our community and our workplaces are broke,” she said, but vowed: “We will mend.”
During the main debate, Katie Conway from the national young members forum said: “Home is the heart of all of our lives. For young workers, buying a home is increasingly remote They need a lifeline, without affordable housing they cannot reach their full potential.
“Put young people at the heart of the campaign to make sure everyone has a safe and secure home.
One speaker argued that “we need to do more to explain to young people the real reason they’re not getting a council flat isn’t because of immigrants – it’s government policies”.
Kath Davies from Northumberland branch said: “The housing crisis disproportionately affects the young people. My daughter got a degree from York university with a £46k debt. She is only paying interest. She will never pay that debt off. She says:, ‘Mum, I’ll never own my own place’.”
Lisa Dempster, from the national women’s committee argued that the Grenfell Tower disaster highlighted the need for decent safe housing for people to live in.
In an emotionally-charged address, she highlighted how a large number of the victims were women and children and the appalling injustices of spending money on cladding to make a building look nice rather than sprinklers to keep them alive.
She also told her story of leaving an abusive relationship several years ago and having a safe council house to go to. Now, she argued, with no homes and refuges being closed, women were being forced to stay in abusive relationships.
Angela Hamilton, representing national disabled members, said that even when new houses are built, “accessible homes are way down the priority list”.
However, she did offer positive news as her own city, Newcastle, is showing the way.
“We work with everyone, including private sector housing developers, to build new homes,”she said. “And we built 1,000 new homes last year in Newcastle. The most in over three decades. We know there’s more to do but it can happen.
“Government policy means we’re not given the autonomy to build the homes we want to.”
Jo Cardwell from Islington said: “The fight for decent housing is the fight for working women’s rights. Women aren’t just workers, they are fighters.”
Debating the selling off of council houses, Steve North from Salford local government branch said: “Unless you own it you can’t control it. There’s no accountability. Housing must be public.”
John Gray, NEC community members and a housing worker in east London said that 1.5 million fewer homes were available at an affordable rent than 38 years ago and the population had grown in that time.
He argued that the Tories’ mantra that regulation is bad had failed Grenfell residents and that their right-to-buy scheme was in fact a right to a discount.
John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets returned to Grenfell Tower and highlighted the different reactions of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to the tragedy. And he argued: “This was corporate manslaughter. These people were murdered.”