The days when two-fifths of the population lived in social housing are over, and attitudes have changed
It’s common knowledge that Britain is facing the most serious housing crisis since 1945. 1.8 million people are waiting for social housing and for a worker on the average salary, 91 per cent of the country is deemed ‘unaffordable’ for purchasing a home. Labour currently offers little to no solution -the bold promise from Miliband to build 200,000 houses a year was commendable, but turned out to be the stuff of daydreams.
The reality is that Labour haven’t had a credible, achievable position on housebuilding since the 60s.
What is it that makes Labour, the party that rebuilt post-war Britain, so out of touch when it comes to housing? If we’re honest with ourselves, there has always been a problem. The concrete estates hastily assembled in the post-war years were poor quality and embodied the poisonous attitude towards social housing which has persisted to this day.
Although Labour provided millions with affordable housing, by confining social housing tenants to estates a stigma was created, and the poverty that many occupants lived in led to increased social problems including crime and drug abuse.
Rather than benefiting from state provision of housing along with the expansion of the welfare state during the years of the post-war consensus, these tenants were condemned in what David Cameron recently called ‘sinkhole estates.’
The Thatcher years were disastrous for housing in Britain; the number of homeless households trebled in a decade, and housebuilding by local authorities and housing associations dropped significantly, mostly due to restrictions on the use of revenue from the sale of council houses and cuts to funding for housing associations.
However the number of housing completions across the private and public sectors has been on a downward trend since the late 60s, so laying all the blame at Maggie’s door does no one much good. New Labour’s own record on housebuilding is awful, and we must face up to that fact.
What Labour must also recognise, however, is that there has been a shift in the public’s attitudes and expectations; people – for the most part – do not want to live in social housing. We can guess at why this may be; the growing individualistic and materialistic trends in our society, or the attacks on social housing regulations that mean lifelong tenancies are no longer secure.
In 1979 42 per cent of the population lived in council housing; nowadays that figure is a mere 18 per cent (including renters from housing associations).
So what does a credible Labour housing policy look like in an era in which no one wants social housing? Well, let’s make it absolutely clear that Labour should commit to building more social housing, which is of enormous benefit to the poorest in society. Social housing’s ‘target audience’ so to speak, is narrowing.
Rather than being an option for just anyone, its role is becoming specifically geared towards the very poorest in society. To think that we can build the number of homes we need — 250,000 per year — without the private sector, is foolish. Labour’s policy must not be a hark back to the drab concrete slums of the past.
Cameron recently asked at PMQs:
“Is it not interesting to reflect on who here is the small “c” conservative who is saying to people, “Stay stuck in your sink estate; have nothing better than what Labour gave you after the war?”
It’s a terrifying, sobering thought that Labour could be branded in this way, and Labour’s housing policy must not be simply to build more council estates. We should embrace Cameron’s idea of clearing ‘sinkhole estates’. His own plans are hideously underfunded and lacking in the sort of provisions, assurances and safeguards needed to protect tenants rights, and thus should be fought in parliament, but on the basis of the detail, not the driving motive.
Garden cities are just one of the possibilities we should be exploring in earnest; they could become the embodiment of Labour’s message. Sustainable, green cities with a mixture of social and private housing – no estates – in which renewable energy sources are owned cooperatively by citizens, public transport links are considerable and owned by the citizens, and rent-controls are used to keep the cost down for private renters (a much needed increase in the minimum wage would also be required).
For each new city built, we can clear away the sinkhole estates. Brand new, modern urban areas with the necessary infrastructure and services cooperatively owned – a vision of what Labour’s Britain will look like.
Indeed, this would be the perfect answer to Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and would have serious benefits for the economy. An increase in supply through private and council housebuilding programmes, along with rent-controls, would help to stabilise prices and making housing more affordable, subsequently bringing down the housing benefit bill.
Right-to-buy must not be feared either – this would suggest Labour is anti-aspiration – as long as councils are granted the powers to build more housing with the revenue, which they were restricted from doing by Thatcher. Use-it-or-lose-it style policies would ensure brownfield sites are used over greenfield where possible, to ensure housing policy does not undermine Labour’s message on the environment. Labour must offer assistance to first-time buyers and not be seen to be anti-home-ownership.
There is great possibility and potential for Labour, if we are willing to be serious about housing. The days when two-fifths of the population lived in social housing are over, and attitudes have changed. Labour must embrace the change and show it is ready to combat the housing crisis through dynamic programmes involving all sectors. A modernised housing policy would embody a new approach to common ownership based on cooperatives and devolution.
We are the builders, we are the innovators, and yet if Corbyn and the Shadow Cabinet are not careful, we risk being typecast by Cameron as the reactionaries wanting everyone stuck in drab concrete estates. His record on housing is shambolic, and if we let him do this it would be a powerful body-blow to Labour’s chances of success, and thus an abdication of responsibility by Labour, for millions would suffer as a result.
Samuel Marlow-Stevens is a freelance writer and former employee of the Labour Party, currently studying at the University of LeedsLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.