Housing isn’t a crisis, but an emergency

National delegate conference backs a range of approaches to tackle the shortage of affordable housing in a passionate debate

conference delegates voting

A passionate debate at UNISON’s national delegate conference saw the union put forward a range of measures to tackle the housing crisis – or, as one speaker put it, the “housing emergency”.

The debate in Liverpool, which continued over two days saw Gasimo from Islington report that “there are 170,000 homeless families in London alone”. It’s a problem that “affects health, family life and child development”.

Given that, “it’s not a crisis, it’s an emergency”.

Jane from Port Talbot pointed out that, in 2019, it’s a disgrace that “not everyone has a safe, warm and dry place to place their head at night”. The Westminster government had a “harsh and uncaring focus” – highlighted by the recent UN report showing increasing poverty in the UK.

Phoebe Watkins from Camden called for “a mass council house building programme, the like of which we’ve not seen for 40 years.”

To win it, “campaigning is essential”.

Pat Heron from the women’s conference highlighted the particular problems faced by women who have experienced domestic abuse and are fleeing it.

And for the NEC, John Grey pointed out that the problem is not a lack of physical buildings: “It’s about the money. The truth is, a lot of housing costs too much.

“Our members need truly affordable housing, near their place of work.”

He cited rents of £1,000 a month for a two-bed flat in east London – from social landlords. “The 80% of market cost doesn’t mean affordable,” added Mr Grey, who recalled the mass building programme of a century ago, “for a land fit for heroes” after WWI.

“Why is it in this country, that we can only build affordable homes after war?” he asked. “If we can do so in 1919 and after 1945, we can do so now.”

Rosie McGregor from national retired members told delegates that, in England alone, “we need to build 34,000 a year until 2031 to deal with this.”

She went on to dismiss the mantra of downsizing: “Downsizing to the coffin? I prefer to say ‘right-sizing’ to their needs.”

Among the recurring themes was the need for a Labour government.

Valerie Bosman-Quarshie from London mentioned empty buildings that increased the sadness at seeing people on the streets. She also mentioned those homeless people who are having to sofa surf.

Ken Curran from Yorkshire and Humberside described the housing market as “completely broken – and our members are suffering as a result”.

People “urgently need more protection from rogue landlords … ripping off people,” often for housing benefit.

Young member Jemma Tucky from the south east, said that she and her fellow members cannot afford a home of their own.

She works in Oxford, the most unaffordable city in the UK, with an average house price of £387,000.

Public service workers cannot afford to live in the area they serve and are having to use foodbanks to get by.

Harriet Morton from Lincolnshire – a mother and carer to a three-year-old who suffers from a mental health problem said that her wages barely cover childcare costs, so she certainly hadn’t got “two grand for the deposit on a private rental property”.

On the housing register for three year, she lives with her parents.

Sean from Hastings – one of the most deprived areas in the south east – described how he and his wife live on the third floor of a social housing block.

His wife is disabled and, with no lift, is flat-bound. Their daughter had moved back in recently because, after complaining to her private landlord about mould in her basement flat, she’d been evicted under a section 21 notice, that requires no justification.

It emerged that the landlord had done the same thing to other people too, as soon as they complained.

Sean also said that Londoners were coming to live in Hastings and commute to the capital because of the cost of housing there.

Yet that meant that, in four years, the market value of his late mother’s house in Hastings has risen from £145,000 to £195,000.

Conference called on the NEC to:

  • continue to make the case for decent, secure, safe and affordable housing;
  • work with Defend Council Housing, Homes For All and Axe The Housing Act to campaign for increased building of council homes;
  • highlight the cost of housing in pay campaigns to ensure that our members have additional income to pay for their housing costs, and campaign for £10 an hour minimum wage;
  • lobby the Westminster government and devolved administrations on the issues.