Two Labour traditions can come together in social housing

A new Labour project for government must call upon both its major traditions - mutual as well as Fabian - to create an attractive synthesis, writes Kevin Gulliver.

Social Housing

Kevin Gulliver is the director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute and chair of the Centre for Community Research; he is writing in a personal capacity

The future of the Labour Party has centred recently upon an ‘either-or’ debate between burgeoning Blue Labour, emphasising empowerment, localism and dispersal of power, and more traditional supporters of state intervention and action, usually associated with the Fabian Society.

Yet in reality, a new Labour project for government must surely call upon both its major traditions – mutual as well as Fabian – to create an attractive synthesis challenging the Conservatives’ false dichotomy between the ‘Big Battalions’ of the state and ‘Little Platoons’ of civic society.

Labour’s roots lie in friendly societies, workers’ co-operatives and trade unions, emphasising self-help and collective endeavour (pdf), and supersede the later Fabian tradition.

Labour’s renewal needs to emphasise the role of an ‘active state’ to support third sector agencies so working in concert to deliver progressive public policies; this partnership approach seems to elude the Conservative-led government resulting in interminable re-launches of its ‘Big Society’ concept.

A policy area calling out for this synthesis to be put into practice is social housing, where four million homes are managed by local councils, housing associations and other social landlords drawing on public funds for capital programmes and to support rents. Yet tenants have little say in the running of their homes or communities; instead they are often vilified using stereotypes of ‘CHAVs’ and ‘NEDs’.

While retaining state oversight through funding, regulation and audit, social housing management should be devolved to tenants and communities via mutuals and tenant management organisations thus embedding both Labour traditions in the sector.

The benefits of transfer of assets to the control of tenants and communities include higher satisfaction ratings, better housing management performance, more active citizens and higher self-esteem among tenants; answering the ‘CHAV’ charge in spades. Tenants are more than capable, with training and other support from social landlords, in managing their own affairs (pdf).

Transfer of social housing assets to tenant and community control coupled with increased investment in housing and infrastructure would enable Labour to craft a coherent and progressive housing policy for the next general election that is grounded in its historical legacy and traditions.

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