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Why not build more council houses, Dave?

Thatcher's ideology took people out of council housing and onto the insecure 'housing ladder'; Cameron too thinks the solution lies in the private sector

Word has it (or rather the BBC News website has it) that while out and about doing his rounds Davey Cameron made an impromptu declaration today that secure tenancies for council houses would be ended.

The argument is that you shouldn’t be able to stay in a council house if you can afford to pay market rents – move somewhere else. Fair point, you might say.

I guessed why this was being raised as soon as I heard about it. Why? Because it’s not the first time. Dave was confronted by a woman rightfully complaining about the shortage of council homes, which meant she had to sleep on a blow-up bed. This is truly terrible. But really Dave, is the solution to kick families around, and accept that such a great proportion of our people will live at the behest of private-sector landlords?

We must look to the housing benefit fiasco for signs of what is to come. The ConDems have capped this in an effort to save on the cash, much as this will by accepting that the state must be small in the housing sector.

As Westminster North MP Karen Buck argues:

[Poorer families] will be forced to move to the ever-reducing number of cheaper homes in cheaper neighbourhoods.  Even those hard-nosed Victorians recognised the importance of providing affordable homes in city centres, as the estates built by Octavia Hill, Peabody and the Sutton Trust testify. No more. Now poorer people must concentrate in poor places, leaving city centres to the better off, in an exercise in social engineering that would leave that great gerrymanderer, Shirley Porter, weak with envy.

So what’s to say the government won’t use fixed tenancies to do exactly the same thing? Council tenants in Camden or Westminster could, as the housing shortage develops further, be kicked out after being told they could afford to rent privately in Dagenham. My fear is that this policy too could create social ghettoisation and, as Buck suggests, gerrymander to the Tories’ advantage as places such as central London become the preserve of the rich.

We can of course trace this problem back to Thatcher. If she hadn’t introduced the right to buy council housing and stopped funding for council building projects we wouldn’t have the shortage of homes that exists today, and fuels the argument for fixed-term tenancies. But it wasn’t just Maggie: Blair, and unfortunately Brown until very late on, followed in her footsteps and didn’t see the calamity ahead.

I’m glad that the current Labour leadership contenders (apart from David Miliband) at least say they’re not of the same mould, and would encourage council housing building projects, but I really do find it difficult to imagine them taking action on this in government. There are too many things which Blair and Brown said they’d do which never materialised.

Finally, while I know I’ve lambasted means-testing on this blog recently in the context of the freedom pass, I think this could possibly work with council housing, and could be ideologically sound as well, due to the fact that council housing isn’t a universal benefit anyway, unlike the freedom pass and under-19s’ travel. Rather than simply kicking people out of their council houses if they can afford to move on, why not have them pay a market rent, allowing the council to fund the tenancy of someone on the waiting list. Circumstances do change.

Regional variation in rents could still be an issue here, however. As I stressed earlier, we don’t want the excuse that one has no business in a council house because one can afford to live somewhere else (regardless of where that might be). One of the greatest things about London is the social mix across areas, and despite the necessity of reform, any form of it seems to threaten taking us closer to breaking this down.

I’d like to hear others views – partially as I’m uncertain on this one myself – so feel free to comment below. There is one thing I’m very clear on, though. Most of the solution is in building council housing – not kicking people out – but we can’t ignore the hundreds of thousands of people on waiting lists. Cameron, like Thatcher, is arguing that the solution to the housing problem lies in the private sector, and the shortage of council housing is simply something we must accept and deal with. It is Labour’s job to prove him wrong.


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