Good afternoon conference.
I want to tell you about a man who came to see me in my surgery. Mr Kidane. He lives in a one bedroom flat which he rents from the Council. The flat would be fine for a couple.
The problem is that he is sharing the flat with his wife and three children.
It is so cramped that Mr Kidane sleeps on the floor with his four year old son.
They have been waiting for a transfer for four years now. But the Council say they are unlikely to be moved for another eight.
He“s a nice man. He works in the local Post Office.
Diana“s life is also on hold. She has lived in temporary accommodation for fourteen years. Her eldest daughter, Shelley, is sixteen. Shelley has spent her whole life moving on. She desperately needs some stability and some space so she can study for her GCSEs. Otherwise the housing misery which has her blighted entire childhood will ruin her future too.
But it is perhaps Sean and Marie“s case that gets to me most.
They live in cramped private accommodation, but the rent swallows all of Sean“s salary. Money got very tight when Marie stopped work to have the baby 10 months ago.
Sean did his best. He managed to get a few hours extra work each week. But it wasn“t enough. They juggled expenses on their credit card to buy basics and then the debts mounted up. They went into arrears.
When they came to see me they had already been warned about eviction. They were frightened. But I don“t think they had the faintest clue about the depths of the nightmare that was likely to engulf them.
I hear a lot of stories like these. Because the stories are so similar, I usually know how it will end.
Let me take a moment to tell you what happens to people like Sean and Marie, up and down the country, every single day.
Usually, councils won“t house people in this situation until they“re evicted.
On the day they“re evicted they must arrive at the housing department with their children in one arm and their belongings in the other. If they“re lucky, they“ll get a B&B for a few nights while the council look at their case.
But then, as they were evicted because they didn“t pay the rent they will be found intentionally homeless and will be given just a few days before being turfed out on their ear.
They“ll struggle to rent anywhere else because of bad references and a ruined credit rating.
There“s no safety net.
Couples like Sean and Marie don“t just live in Brent; there are similar stories in towns and villages all over the country.
And don“t paint these people into a separate group “ a special group “ a class of people you never meet. Mr Kidane may well have stamped your form when you applied for your new passport at the Post Office. Shelley is probably in your child“s form at school. Sean and Marie might go to your Church.
But you probably won“t know, because people are proud. Housing is so much about a person“s identity, it is so basic a need that people keep their private nightmares to themselves.
But MPs and Councillors hear these cases. Over and over again. How on earth can you listen to this despair and not feel compelled to act?
Well let“s acknowledge another home truth.
The people with these stories are not an organised lobby group.
Their story is barely noticed by the broadsheets.
They“re not swing voters in swing seats.
The people who live in chronic housing hell are the people who time after time, election after election, Labour take as a given.
We“ve all seen the arrogance of the Labour party on election day. They go straight to the poorest areas, bang on every door and herd them out to vote.
And yet they have failed the very people who elected them.
1.8 million on the housing waiting list;
one in ten families in my constituency stuck in overcrowding;
and many families falling off of the housing ladder, losing their home.
Labour haven“t just let down the poorest; they have systematically mugged them.
Yes, the next few years are going to be tough for public finances.
But Labour have already made their choice: every time they let their axe fall on the vulnerable; the poorest and the voiceless.
A raid on Decent Homes
And now the latest insult “ snatching £15 a week of Local Housing Allowance from the purse of some of the most vulnerable families in Britain.
I will fight this proposal when Parliament returns in October and I hope that every Labour MP who still has a conscience will join me.
If they really care about the least wealthy in our society then now is the time to show it.
I say to them: stand up against Gordon Brown, remember who elected you, and stand with us to defeat this assault on the poor.
Labour 2: Repossessions
The global recession means housing problems can now touch almost anyone.
Tens of thousands of families fear losing their home.
Behind the security gates and the landscaped garden, the terror of repossession is as close to the redundant city worker with the large mortgage, as to the low paid casual worker, struggling with rent.
Labour would like you to think that they have been very busy fighting repossessions.
So, how many people have been helped by the government“s Mortgage Rescue Scheme?
And how many families are predicted to be repossessed this year?
Sixty five thousand.
And what is the Government“s latest idea to stop repossessions?
An advertising campaign.
Over hyped; under performing; pathetic.
We“ve had a lucky escape so far in many ways.
Unemployment is likely to continue to rise.
Interest rates will not stay low for ever.
This is a ticking time bomb.
Too many of the Government“s initiatives are time-limited.
We“ve got to finally reform our eighteenth century mortgage laws to give the Courts a power to intervene.
It“s time the Government thought long-term, and that means beyond next May.
But of course, Labour“s real housing failure has been to continue the policies of their Conservative predecessors.
Right to Buy without replacing the sold stock
Tenants bullied to accept transfer to housing associations
Housing money pilfered by the Treasury
Between 1997 and 2008 Labour actually built fewer social homes than during the last 11 years of the Tories.
Blue-red, red-blue, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown what“s the difference?
That“s why the Tories won“t change any Labour policies “ because they“re all Tory policies in the first place.
The Tories have nothing to say on housing.
No plans to help people facing repossession.
No plans to put new money into social housing
No plans to abolish the tax on council tenants“ rent.
And if that isn“t enough, last week Caroline Spelman urged Tory councils to put new housing plans on hold.
Not only do they want to do nothing in Government, they“re trying to stop anything happening when they“re in opposition too.
I don“t understand the Tories. If you“ve nothing to say and nothing you want to change, why are you in politics?
Their only motivation is that they think it“s their turn.
They don“t really think they can make things better.
All they believe is that they have a right to rule.
We can make things better.
We will free councils to build thousands and thousands of extra social homes.
We know that“s the only way we can make a difference for people like Mr Kidane and his family; the only way we can rescue the millions of people waiting for a home.
But the recession means that we have to be prepared to completely rethink some approaches to housing.
Take the private rented sector. For too long Government has worshipped at the altar of home ownership at the expense of anything else. For many, the dream of owning your own home is as far away as ever.
We have to drive up standards so renting is not the duff choice; either for those who can“t afford to buy or those stuck on the housing waiting list.
There are practical things the Government could do to raise standards. Cutting VAT on repair and renewal, tax relief on property improvements and increasing institutional investment would all make a difference.
The problem for people on benefits is that so few landlords accept claimants, they“re left with the rubbish that everyone else has discarded.
We can give those on benefits access to better quality housing.
I met with a company recently who are offering a service called Fast Track.
It“s a clever mix of insurance and advice that does away with the need for a deposit and rent in advance, because the landlord gets a guarantee that the rent will get paid.
The company checks off would be tenants for Housing Allowance, sorts all their references, and helps them draw up a budget.
All of a sudden, landlords who would never have considered letting their property to those on benefits, begin to do so.
Finally, people on benefits get access to more than the rubbish at the bottom of the heap and the whole sector gets dragged up as a result.
Maybe if we had more of these schemes, Shelley would have a room of her own to study for her GCSEs.
We need new ideas to deliver new housing too.
The recession has hit house building hard.
Section 106 has dried up.
It“s not delivering the number of extra social homes we need.
There are other ideas out there. Local housing bonds, for example, where savers club together to invest in the future of their community.
It would give Councils funding now, upfront, to pay for the infrastructure new developments need.
As well as new homes, we need to make the most of the buildings we do have.
Across the country 800,000 properties lie empty and dilapidated.
We all know of landowners who will leave a property sat empty just because it suits them.
But the real crime is that the state is one of the worst offenders.
If all the empty social homes were brought back into use, we could house 30,000 families.
And if Government were to build new housing on all the surplus land that they own, we could house almost another 100,000 families.
800,000; 100,000; 30,000: that“s half the waiting list.
Why can“t some of these long-term empty state owned homes be offered cheaply to first-time buyers who are willing to put in the work to bring them up to scratch?
Housing for self-starters.
Sean worked in construction; this might have been ideal for him and Marie.
Whole streets in decline could be regenerated.
The new owner gets an affordable property.
And the community benefits from increasing property prices and residents who have really invested in their local area.
This isn“t a solution for every street, but maybe it could work on the edges of pathfinder areas, where a project is struggling because of lack of finance.
My fear is that the recession will leave us with whole estates of empty property, as regenerations schemes stall just as everyone is moved out.
We could use these estates for short-life housing to help a young person on low wages get a temporary helping hand.
Or, we could do what Labour Tower Hamlets did: pour concrete down the toilets to stop squatters and leave estates to ruin while we wait.
What a criminal waste.
The recession magnifies our problems, but also offers new possibilities.
What we make of these will affect thousands of people“s lives. Ordinary families, struggling to make ends meet.
Conference, shelter is one of the most basic human needs.
Without shelter, how can you keep yourself fit and healthy, study for your exams, or work to earn a living?
Yet Labour have failed in their duty to provide shelter for those most in need.
If a Labour government can“t get this right, then everything becomes irrelevant.
Building the new homes we need is not going to happen overnight.
I can“t tell the people who come to my surgery that a Liberal Democrat Government will wave a magic wand and fix everything.
But I can tell them, that step by step, brick by brick, we will rebuild this country“s housing stock.
I can say, that if we are asked to choose between hiking up taxes on billionaires or on tenants, we will not choose tenants.
And I can say that we will break with the same old policies of the last fifty years, tweaked by each new red/blue blue/red government that comes through the revolving door.
Labour have failed.
They no longer want to help ordinary people; they want only to help themselves.
Labour“s core vote is melting away.
Up and down the country, every single day, Labour supporters are turning to the Liberal Democrats.
I say to those people: Labour may have forgotten about you, but we never will. We are different.
It“s why we are in politics; it“s why we pound the streets, deliver the leaflets, knock on the doors.
We are ambitious for change.
We will fight for change.
And we will not rest until we win.
Conference 2009 Speech by Shadow Housing Minister
Good afternoon conference.