Build More Bloody Council Houses!

When I was a child, I used to love visiting my grandparents on their council estate in the North East. The rows of small, yet trim and tidy terraces spilled kids out to play.

The houses that I remember seemed to me to be a permanent fixture. Working people offered security, rather than the chimeric motivation of profit and status that I saw as I came of age in the long years of Tory Government of the 80’s and 90’s.

Of course, they hadn’t been there for long — it was the post-war Labour Government, who recognised that the poor state of housing was not only a cause for national shame, but a serious health issue for vast swathes of a population who had come through the vigour of wartime. The National Health Service was also born in these elevated times, and squalid housing was seen, rightly, as part and parcel of that crusade. So much so, that housing policy was run from the department of Health, and its figurehead Nye Bevan.

Millions of working people rehoused

During the post-war Labour Government, a target of 200,000 council houses to be built each year was set by Bevan, an extraordinary number which illustrates the depth of the crisis. Bevan wasn’t always successful, and those years saw plenty of debate about the best way to achieve these targets, but it is indisputable that millions of working people were rehoused in new, or renovated homes at a time of extreme economic pressure. To give people their first taste of secure housing was a considerable achievement which should be as celebrated today as the establishment of the National Health Service.

Only 370,000 of those houses now remain in council hands, and less than half of councils hold housing stock. Many have abrogated their responsibilities to ‘arm’s length’ companies and Housing Associations, all lumped together in the new realities of “social housing”. This sleight of hand renaming, taking away the essence of houses owned by the nation for the people who need them, towards a Victorian-esque barb at underachievers and malingerers passed almost without notice or comment. Not owning your home in 2018 is seen as a personal failing, a deficit in citizenship and an afterthought for political thought or action.

Labour’s Record is Disgraceful

To understand this social housing phenomenon, and the sharp turning away from council housing, one must understand not only Thatcherite free marketeers who brutally assessed that a status boost  and quick profits would prove a tantalising no matter what the long-term damage, but “Third Way” politicians terrified of going back to the bad old days of working class community solidarity. Labour’s record of building council houses in government between 1997 and 2010 is nothing short of disgraceful.

Therefore, at a time when social problems have once again reached crisis levels, and the Tories are rapidly rowing back on the reformist concessions put in the water by that Labour Government on education, health and pensions, the new Labour Party Green Paper Housing for the Many is a little disappointing in its timidity.

Home ownership is in retreat due to the failings of the capitalist market system, and the profit-for-all myth. The idea that status and profit are more important than security has gripped the British political establishment since 1979. But now is the time to side with those who either can’t or don’t wish to be part of that unsustainable merry-go-round. Whilst a redefinition of “Affordable Housing” from the ridiculous situation at present is welcome, and a commitment to house building is an absolute necessity, the Green Paper seems too frightened to take on the mythos of home ownership as the solution to the housing crisis, rather than its cause. There are some vague notions of councils being able to start building again, and a pause of “Right to Buy” is floated, but beyond this, council housing is not mentioned as such, and the damaged-beyond -recognition fable of “social housing”, with all its negative connotations is still given creed.

Recently, I returned to the small mining village where my grandparents lived to visit the members of my family who still live there. Those clean and busy streets, lined with neat little houses with prim gardens are gone. The local kids hang mournfully around the one open takeaway restaurant or are hiding away somewhere playing at killing zombies. The houses are more ramshackle, less cared for, even though many of them are owned by commuters who work in Newcastle but can’t afford to live there. There’s little noise apart from the occasional arguments about car parking on streets built before people had cars. The pubs are gone, as are the working men’s clubs. The church is boarded up.

“How’s Rita?” I asked my great-auntie, referring to the elderly lady who had been living next door since time immemorial, and used to feed me sweets and let me play tunelessly on her piano when I was a boy, “Oh, she died years ago” comes the answer “I don’t know who lives there now, but I’m sure they’ve been stealing my clothes pegs”.

Look again to Council Housing

Let us be bold. The council housing built in the post-war era didn’t only provide sanitary and habitable housing for the many, it created and sustained communities of working people that are unrecognisable from some of the sink estates we now have. Transient, short-term, insecure and outrageously expensive rentals are now almost the only option for working class people, often on zero-hour and temporary contracts. Private landlords, many of who purchased their assets at great discounts during the Tory years of deliberate attacks on communities, are making huge profits from the taxpayer at the expense of these families. Discounted home ownership isn’t the answer, nor is social housing managed by faceless and often unaccountable third parties. We need to look again to Council Housing to rebuild not just homes, but the lives and communities – with all their solidarity – that was delivered by Bevan and that Labour government.

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