And it was all going so well. Late last year, a coalition of eight housing organisations, led by the National Housing Federation, teamed up to launch the Homes for Britain Campaign. The Home Builders Federation was involved. The Residential Landlords Association was involved. Backing them up were dozens of other organisations: everyone who’s anyone in the housing sector was in the mix somewhere.
There was a poster campaign. There was a rally, attended by 2,500 people. There were balloons. The goal of all this was to get politicians of every party to commit to ending Britain’s housing crisis within a generation. It’s difficult to know how much of the credit Homes for Britain (HfB) can take, but what is clear is that housing will be more discussed at this election than it’s been at any in decades.
Except now this has happened. From Alex Hilton*, the director of the Generation Rent campaign group:
At Generation Rent we are dedicated not just to helping get housing to the top of the political agenda but to leverage that into delivering real, positive and rapid change.
Today that meant that finally we were forced to leave the Homes for Britain campaign having failed to convince the steering group to adopt a strategy that met our goals, which we believe most of the HfB coalition partners share.
Why are mummy and daddy fighting? Is it because they don’t love us anymore?
Generation Rent campaigns for the interests of private renters – and so, one might think, it’d be pretty on board with the idea of ending the housing crisis. So what gives?
Part of the problem seems to be a feeling that the campaign isn’t achieving what it set out to do. It’s been great at generating publicity: it’s all over social media, there are posters on the tube at Westminster, and every major party has felt the need to at least talk about housing. (This last may not sound like much, but the crisis was already well advanced by 2010, and hardly anyone bothered then.) All that is brilliant.
Yet the policies coming forth from the Tories – who still have a fair chance of remaining in government after 7 May – seem almost perfectly calculated to make the crisis worse. Subsidise first time buyers! Flog off housing association homes! Block new homes at every chance you get! If the Conservative party really does support the goal of ending the housing crisis within a generation, it has a funny way of showing it.
But there’s another reasons that Generation Rent has abandoned the campaign: a feeling that what it set out to achieve wasn’t ambitious enough in the first place. Hilton again:
We were also concerned that the asks were not just weak, but allowed politicians too much political space. “Ending the housing crisis within a generation” simply isn’t good enough for a person experiencing the housing crisis; and “publishing your proposals within a year of taking office” should have been a demand to publish proposals before people vote. We felt these added up to get out of jail free card for politicians.
No significant advance in housing policy has been achieved from any party in a year and, in fact, retrograde policies are now a reality.
We believe this is because HfB has taken a lowest-common-denominator approach when that denominator is the Residential Landlords Association.
In other words, Generation Rent argues, it’s all very well creating a movement in which landlords and tenants and developers and land owners (and Labour and Tory and UKIP and Greens) can all come together and say that they want to end the housing crisis. But doing so doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the housing market is a zero sum game. If we have enough homes, prices will fall. For renters to win, landlords must lose. Pretending they have a shared interest here is a recipe for inaction.
The flipside to this argument is that any successful campaign to fix the housing crisis will require a certain level of zeal. Precisely because this is going to be hard, you need a sense of a national mission, to which all interested parties are signed up in advance – otherwise, there won’t be enough political momentum to keep the thing moving when the going gets tough.
We asked the National Housing Federation for its response to Generation Rent’s departure. Here’s what chief executive, David Orr told us in a statement:
Thanks to the Homes for Britain campaign, housing is now firmly on the agenda and it is now the majority view that there is a housing crisis. Crucially, it is now a given that this housing crisis’ roots lie in a shortage of homes that people can afford.
Homes for Britain brings together hundreds of organisations from every corner of the housing world, from homelessness charities to tenant groups to landlords and housing associations, to make the case for housing.
By speaking with one voice, we have powerfully made the case that the next government must end the housing crisis. Now we must continue to work together to turn those words into real action.
So – Homes for Britain wants compromise and solidarity; Generation Rent wants more action against the vested interests which stand to benefit from the crisis’ continuation. Which is the most effective campaigning strategy, only time will tell.
*By way of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known Alex since long before either of us were in our current jobs.
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