In praise of Stalinist housing targets

By David Osland

Rightwing philosopher Michael Oakeshott famously described conservative politics as ‘the plan not to have a plan’. The notion that thinking ahead on policy issues that will necessarily take five, ten or twenty years to sort out is the first step on the road to serfdom is hardwired into Tory pathology.

Even so, Liz Truss’s derisive dismissal of “Whitehall-inspired Stalinist housing targets” in an interview in the Telegraph is a spectacular exemplar of this kind of rampant stupidity.

Her remarks come just days after another Number Ten hopeful Tom Tugendhat, accused Labour of wanting to build “socialist housing”. Many of those on waiting lists stretching far into the future might not regard that as an especially horrendous prospect.

I don’t know if this has crossed the radar screen of the contenders to become Britain’s next prime minister, but after 12 years of Tory-led governments, more than 200,000 people in Britain are homeless, with thousands sleeping rough.

The problem is not the existence of targets for housing. The problem is that the targets have not been met. Housing starts are at their lowest level in a century.

Ms Truss is pitching herself as Margaret Thatcher reincarnate, right down to donning a 1979-style pussy-bow blouse for a televised leadership debate. And that’s no small irony, because the root of Britain’s housing crisis is precisely one of Thatcherism’s cornerstone policies.

Right to buy, a not even thinly-veiled bribe to a layer of the working class electorate, decimated the social housing stock and gave us cardboard city. If you seek its monument, look around you.

Free market solutions got us here, free market solutions will not get us out. This is not least because the Tories are mendicants poncing off the largesse of property developers, and dependent on NIMBY voters, who will not countenance any new towns taking up valuable golf course space.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with a remark that evinces fatuity on such a scale as Truss’s outburst. But let’s start with the shocking display of historical illiteracy.

Housing targets were introduced in Britain by the Lloyd George coalition elected after World War One. Most of its MPs were Tories, of course.

‘Homes fit for heroes’ turned out to be a hollow promise. Social housing did not take off significantly outside London until after World War Two, thanks in no small part to the endeavours of Nye Bevan.

But the construction of council dwellings peaked in the 1950s, under the Tory government of Macmillan. If Supermac drew some kind of clandestine inspiration from Uncle Joe, it’s news to me.

Even Boris Johnson, during his stint as London mayor, had a housing target of 40,000 units a year. He never even got halfway there: architecturally ugly off-plan bolt holes for billionaires’ mistresses sprang up in preference to anything a teacher or nurse could move into.

But for the purposes of this argument, the point is the target was there, and the only Russians Johnson is influenced by are oligarchs, not long-dead politburo chiefs.

I’m not in the business of writing the scripts of right wing politicians for them, but on any reasonable reckoning, the centre-right has a reasonable record on this stuff.

Granted, you have to go back to before I was born to find it, and I’m getting my pension soon. But it is there, and could reasonably be reclaimed for rhetorical purposes, at least by any Tory politicians not utterly determined to paint themselves as nasty bastards.

Then there is the automatic linkage of the very idea of a plan as somehow the slippery slope to totalitarianism.

I am reminded of Michael Howard’s 2001 dismissal of the NHS as ‘a Stalinist creation’. It looks like the Tories have a visceral loathing of the elementary democratic idea of collective provision for basic social needs.

It is, it seems, entirely desirable to have a target for deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Just not a target for putting roofs over people’s heads.

Nobody needs a PhD in housing policy to diagnose what is going wrong. The only possible solution to a shortage of housing is to build housing, at prices within the means of mere mortals to buy or rent. By definition, that cannot be done overnight.

Working out how to go about this sensibly over the next decade or two has nothing whatsoever to do with liquidating the kulaks as a class. It’s not in the best interests of Persimmon or Barrett, but that’s another story.

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David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Liz Truss. Source: Author: Chris McAndrew, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.