Time to take off the blinkers
First Published 18 February 2016
Council housing improved the lives of millions of people in the past century. We now have an historic opportunity to rediscover its benefits, says Glyn Robbins.
The stigmatisation of council tenants has become commonplace, aided by a government determined to erode a form of tenure that, only a generation ago, housed a third of our population. This prejudice obscures what should be a rational and objective debate about housing policy, at a time when the issue has rarely been as important.
The government’s one-track, neo-liberal approach was doomed before the financial crash -now it is in tatters.
We urgently need an alternative and have an historic opportunity to rediscover the benefits of publicly owned housing.
Nobody, least of all council tenants, would pretend there haven’t been serious failures of design, policy and management. But human beings (even housing managers) learn from experience. The technological advances since the last wave of municipal house building have equiped us to build council housing fit for the 21st century. To do so, we need to escape the negative mindset and consider the benefits of council housing over other current forms of provision.
With repossessions and homelessness rising and up to five million people on council waiting lists, we need an emergency programme of genuinely affordable, rented homes. The capacity of council housing to deliver a quarter of a million new homes a year has been proved in the past.
Even in the boom years, the combined efforts of private developers and housing associations didn’t get close to meeting the demand. In the current crisis, the efficient coordination of services is possible if proper concern is given to the role of public service, accountability and local democratic control.
As land prices fall and sites stand empty, now is the time to invest in the public portfolio. One of the biggest scandals of current policy is the wanton disposal of public assets to the private sector.
The true value of council housing lies not just in providing decent, affordable homes, but in the land it’s built on. There are thousands of acres of publicly owned land that could be used, not least the Olympic site in London, where thousands of quality council homes would provide a real legacy.
Many building workers have lost their jobs since the recession hit and the decline is likely to continue. The enormous human and economic cost is avoidable if, instead of forcing more workers on to the dole queue, their expertise is used to build homes.
But in the past, the profit-seeking, corner-cutting, cynical culture of the construction industry has been part of the problem, not the solution. It has resisted innovation, while exploiting a casual, under-trained workforce. Inefficiency is endemic and safety standards are still unacceptable. Proper apprenticeships and decent pay and conditions can only be guaranteed by the public sector working in the public interest.
As well as failing to meet targets for new affordable and decent homes, the government will also miss its target for sustainable homes. The ambition of all new homes being ‘zero carbon’ by 2016 was never taken seriously by private developers and there is absolutely no chance of them delivering on it now.
We need a housing policy that enables us to look beyond the next shift in interest rates. The policy holy grails of ‘social cohesion’, ‘integration’ and ‘community development’ have neither been found, nor clearly defined within the failed rhetoric of neo-liberalism, but council housing has succeeded where current policy has failed. While Bevan’s vision of the butcher living next door to the doctor may not quite have been achieved, council estates have been -and remain -far more socially and ethnically mixed than the home-ownership ghettos of suburbia.
Council housing encourages genuine engagement with local democracy and politics. Long before the ‘participation’ industry was spawned, council tenants
were actively involved in their local communities, campaigning for better conditions, but also organising social and mutual welfare activities.
Perhaps most importantly, while the mortgage millstone drowns millions, the security and affordability of council housing allows people the freedom to do other things with their lives: lone parents can afford to work, students can afford an education, pensioners can heat their homes. The enormous costs of poor housing are well known. Refusing to invest in genuinely affordable housing is a false economy.
Council housing improved the lives of millions of us in the 20th century: we must not deny it to those who need it in the 21st.
Glyn Robbins is a housing worker and research student at the Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University.