Housing: of course there are more questions than answers

Earlier today, m’learned colleague Sara Bedford penned a piece responding to David Cameron’s off-the-cuff policy-making on the issue of tenure in social housing.

Her piece has unreasonably taken flak from our valued community of commenters for asking more questions than she answered.

But housing is one of the thornier issues facing any government, and like so many big problems, of course there are more questions than answers.  No-one disputes that were we are now is not ideal. There aren’t enough homes. People are overcrowded. Others are overhoused. Houses cost too much more than most people earn for many people to be able to afford to buy one. But houses are also most people’s only major asset so there is no appetite for making them less valuable.

Everyone disputes the destination. Do we build more homes? Existing homeowners don’t want the supply of housing diluted, thus devaluing their own investment; nor do they want any new council housing to be built anywhere near the most expensive thing they own. Existing council tenants unsurprisingly love the Right To Buy, which is by far the cheapest way of acquiring a house. Similarly those tenants with no intention of converting their secure tenancy into a tangible asset rather like the fact that the house they were allocated in their teens when they had young children is still theirs to allocate as they please in a whole new world fifty years later.

In a context where no-one knows where we’re going how is it surprising that there are questions to answer about how we get there?

And how, in all the hours of debate there have been on this topic in the last 24 hours, have so few people remembered that this too was floated as Labour party policy in very recent past? Ruth Kelly mooted it as a possible solution in 2007. (My google-fu is failing me today, and I can’t find what ultimately happened to her idea.)

And what has Labour contributed to the housing debate over the last thirteen years in power?  So little progress was made under Tony Blair in tackling many of the major issues that Gordon Brown had to make housing the major focus of his years in Number 10. And his major focus seems to have achieved little more than Tony before him.

The major plank of Labour’s attitude towards council housing was that it should end.

Labour might have made a substantial carrot available to fund “Decent Homes” improvements, but this money was only available to councils that stopped managing their housing stock themselves and farmed the responsibility to an often remote Registered Social Landlord, an Arms-Length Management Organisation or undertake a Large Scale Voluntary Transfer.

The complexity of each of these options was so huge that vast sums of money intended for improvement of council housing and investment in tenants leaked away in the creation of new bureaucracies. Tenants organisations demanded the “fourth option” which was to be allowed to have the money without wasting millions transferring homes – and Labour spent 13 years resisting that path.

Not, of course, that that stopped some local Labour parties from mendacious attempts to campaign on the issue. In Chesterfield for years, Chesterfield Labour accused the Liberal Democrats running the council of wanting to sell off the council houses over half of the town’s residents lived in when the only people wanting council houses sold were the Labour government!

And for all of the last thirteen years, the stocks of council houses have declined as many thousands of people exercised their right to buy.  Under Thatcher, councils were prevented from using the money raised to build more council houses; under Labour these rules were supposedly relaxed. That so few councils have built more homes is testament to the failure of this policy.  Labour could find millions to invest in starting ALMOs, propping up RSLs and encouraging LSVTs, but when it came to building new houses for council tenants, the coffers were bare.

Labour’s record in council housing was terrible.  The waiting lists doubled; housing was compulsorily removed from accountable local authorities and fewer new social homes were built than under the Conservatives.  It’s no wonder it’s now time for a new approach.

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