Most Labour activists, councillors and MPs will be familiar with the housing crisis in Britain. First time buyers are now confronted with an average house price of more than £160,000 (£280,000 in London) to get their first step on the housing ladder, and the average deposit required has now hit £52,000. Many people simply cannot afford this.
With available social housing scarce and rents in the private sector rising faster than wages, the squeeze is being felt across all forms of housing provision. There is no simple or easy answer to these problems. However, I do believe there is one innovative idea that could make a real difference.
That is to legislate to change the laws of tenure in the UK to provide for real co-operative housing to exist, as my Co-operative Housing (Tenure) Bill sought to do last year. The premise of the bill was simple: in Britain we currently only recognise two forms of housing tenure – ownership and tenancy. This has been the case since feudal times. My bill would change this and create co-operative housing tenure, where people would have a right to live and occupy the property they live in by virtue of being a member of the co-operative who owns it. People would be offered a genuine alternative to owning or renting, and be able to pay an amount appropriate to their income to build up equity in the co-operative that could then be sold when they wish to move.
Our existing tenure laws cause a host of problems for housing associations who wish to run themselves in accordance with co-operative principles as, in legal terms, the relationships involved must at present be contractual rather than co-operative. For instance, a housing co-operative could not at the moment choose to determine maintenance and repair obligations democratically, as you would expect in a cooperative, as under landlord and tenant law these obligations must be spelt out in the original tenancy agreement. There are many practical examples like this, which are source of significant frustration.
Although our tenure laws in the UK remain unmodernised from feudal times, many other countries have addressed these problems already. In Sweden, where co-operative housing tenure has existed since 1920, nearly a fifth of all housing is provided in this way. Closer to home, I am delighted to see that the Welsh Labour administration has signalled it will implement these reforms in its ‘Homes for Wales’ white paper.
But for those on the left this isn’t just a debate about putting roofs over peoples’ heads. It is about tapping into one of the most important traditions of the Labour movement, that of handing power down to communities and giving people the autonomy to decide their own lives and futures. It is about recognising that the state has a role to play in providing housing, but that this works best when it is an enabling state that empowers and builds resilience on the ground.
As a Labour and Co-operative MP, I believe the values of mutualism, solidarity, and fraternity are as important today as they have ever been, and I think their application to housing tenure are long overdue.
This article first appeared on the Fabians’ website at http://www.fabians.org.uk/create-co-operative-housing-tenure/