Put Council Housing Centre Stage in Political Debate

Writing in the Morning Star, columnist Glyn Robbins makes a powerful case for unions and housing activists to use the next 40 weeks running up to the general election, to make the building council residences centre stage in political debate.

Not since the end of World War II has housing occupied such a prominent place in national political debate. With millions struggling to find a home that meets their needs and incomes, housing should be a major issue in next year’s general election. Thirty years of neoliberalism has clawed-back the progress of the post-1945 generations. Few parents today can be sure their children will be well-housed. But despite the mounting crisis, the response of the labour movement is patchy and inadequate.

The Labour Party continues to pussyfoot around the issue and leading trade unionists are not doing enough to campaign for housing policies that will improve the lives of their members. The 2008 crash exposed the folly of a housing system based on speculative investment, but the case for an alternative has not been won. Ed Balls, for example, continues to worship at the altar of home ownership and dare not speak the name “council housing.”

The unions have done some valuable research on the failure of the market-driven approach, but too often dilute the case for public investment by using the misleading terms “social” and “affordable” housing. With the honourable exception of Frances O’Grady, very few labour movement leaders seem prepared to talk about council housing with pride. It was not ever thus. The homes, services and facilities that rescued working-class communities from the brutality of the market were won by collective struggle, with unions demanding a better future outside, as well as inside, the workplace.

The obvious link between decent jobs and decent homes featured prominently in campaigns that put pressure on politicians to back public investment. My union, Unite, has a clear, unequivocal position that we need a national programme of council house-building. But in the week that Len McCluskey pledged the union’s support for the Labour Party, Ed Miliband isn’t getting the message. Winning the argument for direct public investment in housing will take more than nostalgia and platitudes. We need to reclaim and update the council housing concept. Alongside three decades of underinvestment, council housing and the people who live in it have been stigmatised and marginalised. But there’s probably never been greater pent-up demand to become a council tenant than now.

Alongside five million people on the waiting list are all those forced into private renting because there’s no alternative. Our movement needs to connect with those people by campaigning for housing policies that will improve their lives. It’s not just about numbers. There’s understandable anxiety about overdevelopment, even though such fears are often exaggerated. But by taking housing out of the market, we can plan the homes we need, where we need them. By making housing a collective not an individual asset we can maximise the potential for genuinely sustainable homes that share utilities, facilities and services. We can also build stronger, genuinely sustainable communities by removing the perpetual anxiety of keeping a roof over your head.

After 1945, council housing bestowed a social legacy that survived for generations. It can do so again. But we need to widen our vision for council housing. Around the world, poor people are being dispossessed by the juggernaut of private property development. The World Cup in Brazil has exposed the injustice of slum-dwellers forced out of their homes to make way for stadiums and luxury apartments, but this is just the latest example of a global trend. When Britain had a critical mass of council housing — and in the neighbourhoods where it still does — public ownership form a firebreak against gentrification. As the municipal stock shrinks and the market overheats, working-class communities become more vulnerable to displacement.

The Churchill Gardens estate in Westminster is an example of council housing at its best — a diverse, robust community living in high-quality, affordable homes. The town clerk when the estate was built was Parker Morris, who gave his name to generous space standards, in stark contrast to those that have since made British homes the pokiest in Europe.
Now property speculators are eyeing the estate up for redevelopment, hoping to take advantage of its central, riverside location. Around London, a dozen estates are under similar threat.

Our movement needs to promote council housing as a way of preventing inner-cities becoming playgrounds for the rich. It’s hard to overstate the seriousness of the situation we’re in. As Britain sleepwalks towards another property market crash, the national Labour Party and union leadership are failing to raise an alternative. The government and opposition are locked into a sterile phony bidding war about who can build more new homes, completely ignoring their shared failures of the past. It’s not just about how many, it’s about what kind. Simply dumping more homes on an already unbalanced market will only hasten collapse.

We need a long-term, national and regional plan — with council housing at its heart — that utilises the millions of acres of surplus public land. In doing this, we also need to grasp the nettle of the Right to Buy — recently outlawed in Scotland. There are various ways to reform the scheme, but it cannot continue to drain new homes away as soon as they’re built.  The legitimate desire of people to own their home cannot trump the right of others to have a home at all.

There are 40 weeks until the next general election. The leaders of the labour movement need to use every one to campaign for the homes we need.

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