Labour’s Council Housing Revolution

By Adam Peggs

Right now, we are living through a housing tragedy. An acute shortage of social housing, a bitter crisis of affordability and a slide toward more cramped and poorer quality homes. Rather than being a housing crisis in a temporary sense, in which we might soon get over this problem, this state of affairs risks being the whole future of our housing system as we slide toward an even more economically polarised society.

While the government has claimed social housing is one of its priorities, this laughable claim flies in the face of all recent historical experience. It was Boris Johnson’s party which brought in Right to Buy in the 1980s, among the largest privatisations in British history, and oversaw the dwindling of the social housing sector. The Conservatives, too, were responsible for deregulating private rents and tearing up the right to secure tenancies in the Thatcher era – leaving England with the weakest tenants’ rights in the West of Europe. Since 2010, the Conservatives have slashed social housing funding, overseen a drastic rise in homelessness and given us the biggest increase in housing costs for working class people in Western Europe. The publication Inside Housing warned, only a little exaggeratively, that this would be ‘the end of social housing’.

We have been left with a housing system in which social housebuilding is a fraction of what it once was – leaving those who can’t afford a mortgage with little option but to live in an insecure, unaffordable private rental sector. Those lucky enough to climb onto the housing ladder find themselves lumbered with a millstone of debt, with financial lenders the primary beneficiaries. These are very much the symptoms of how our economy is structured.

A fraction of the funding cuts to social housing were reversed after the 2017 election, a result in part of Labour’s election success that summer. Yet only around 6000 social rented homes were built last year. Further concessions from the government on housing may be harder to win. We now have a new administration and a new Housing Secretary in Esther McVey, one of the most strident Thatcherites in parliament. This is somebody whose political instincts are very much in favour of the Thatcher revolution, expecting them to do even a half-decent job of representing tenants and those on low incomes might be optimistic. When it comes to housing the limited shift toward the ‘centre-ground’ seen under Theresa May would likely be reversed. A first sign of this is the current set of plans to sell off Housing Association properties.

Shelter is arguing we need at least 3 million new social-rented homes as part of a 20-year house-building programme, which would extend the benefits of social housing – low rents and a highly-secure tenancy, to many more working class people. This plan would come with a price tag of around £10.7 billion of public investment per year.

Labour’s offer to the voting public this election will have much in common with Shelter’s recommendations. Corbyn, and other senior Labour figures, have been publicly calling for 500,000 council houses to be built over the course of a five-year government. Coupled with an end to Right to Buy (and hopefully its equivalent for Housing Associations, the ‘Right to Acquire’ too) we would see significant steps forward in creating a housing sector with genuine affordability. The mooted plan for this would cost approximately £10 billion a year, offering greater quality than past generations of social housing. A council housing programme of this size might be the beginning of a major shift in how the housing sector is organised.

We need to dispense with the snobbish idea that social housing is second-rate and instead paint a vision of a society in which high-quality, affordable and secure housing is a right for every single person. Labour’s recent announcements and the impressive housing motion passed at September’s conference suggest that the party is very much up to the task.

The modern housing sector has become a social disaster. Housing wealth inequality is at vast levels. Homelessness is at a 13 year high. Homes serve as a cash cow for Britain’s bloated financial system. Renter’s rights are at rock bottom. The size of new homes is declining – rather than rising. And affordable housing feels increasingly uncommon. If there is one thing a government could do to make a difference, it is to outline and implement a plan for a major council house-building programme.

A Labour government, elected on a bold manifesto, will be on track to break with the financialised, deregulated economy we live under. This government would be one which promises, and delivers, major investment in council housing. It is high time that housing is treated as a social right – Labour’s housing plans would go a long way toward making that aspiration a reality.