Housing benefits

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The abandonment of council housing building has worsened dramatically the housing crisis, both socially and financially. Glyn Robbins argues the case for publicly-owned, democratically-run and high-quality social housing.

The current world economic crisis is unusual. Previous recessions have been triggered by commodity prices, runs on the banks, stock market crashes, wars, natural disasters and hyperinflation. The roots of this one lie in the absurdity of the housing market.

The catastrophic collapse of subprime mortgages in the US revealed much wider weaknesses in international capitalism, but the origins are very simple. Housing, which most of us regard as an essential of human existence, is so overpriced that millions of people around the world can't afford it without risking financial ruin. Subprime aftershocks are now working their way through the global financial system, but amid all the hand wringing and analysis it's important to hold on to the fundamentals: treating housing as a speculative commodity doesn't work and, while it may make fortunes for a few, it creates misery for many.

In the US, a country that has never had an equivalent of council housing, millions of low and middle income families have been compelled to buy a home at the limit of what they can afford. The unscrupulous selling of subprime mortgages has resulted in mass repossessions, homelessness and social decay.

It would be a great mistake to think that "it couldn't happen here". The many "low cost" home ownership products that are subprime mortgages by another name - and have dominated the business plans of housing associations - are now exposed.

Britain is firmly in the grip of a housing crisis and it's likely to get worse. Already there are 1.5 million people on council waiting lists and the queue is going to get longer as the number of repossessions inevitably increases. Decades of under-investment in genuinely affordable rented housing are not only failing to generate the new homes we need, but are also leaving millions of council tenants living in deplorable conditions, often leading to poor health, impaired education and a raft of other social consequences that are not only bad for individuals, but for their communities and our society as a whole.

The failure of current policy results from the slavish obsession with home ownership and the assumption, against all evidence, that the market has the power to provide the homes we need. A snapshot from the figures for new homes built shows the roots of the problem (see graph).

There are some important - if obvious - conclusions to draw from these figures. First is the collapse of council house building. It is almost impossible to believe that only a generation ago half of all new homes built were genuinely public. Second is the overall, if sporadic, decline in the number of new homes built. The current government target is for 3 million new homes by 2020. Some critics, including the charity Shelter, say this isn't enough. A glance back in time shows that the capacity of the construction industry - when linked to adequate public investment - can deliver far more than our current expectations. Thirdly, despite enjoying a unique place at the right hand of government policy, housing associations have singularly failed to fill the gap left by council house building. Even taking the loosest definition of "affordable", we are still in a situation where only one in ten new homes in Britain are built for people who can't afford to buy.

It could be argued that housing policy has more impact on people's everyday lives than any other plank of government, with the possible exception of wars. In his studies of the Ocean Estate in Stepney, Professor Peter Ambrose has extensively recorded the way that bad housing has knock-on effects for a multitude of public services - and thereby public expenditure. For example, Ambrose shows that poorly housed families are far more likely to call upon health services, and their children to need extra help at school. It's less easy to calculate other social costs, but the problems of petty crime, drugs and the alienation of young people are often associated with poor housing. Government refusal to adequately invest in housing is a false economy.

One consequence of the deification of home ownership is the way it explicitly encourages an individualistic outlook on life. Many words have been poured out describing our atomised, fractured society, but it is often with an underlying sense that this is the natural order of things. The house building industry is wedded to this concept of individualism, of which having a mortgage is the ultimate expression. The neurosis associated with the mortgage fixation is depicted in one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. Writing about Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller recalls, "I hoped it was a time bomb under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that sought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last!"

As Miller succinctly observes, after buying a home comes buying things to put in it. The housing academic Professor Peter Malpass once referred to government elevating shopping to a "civic duty" and there is no question that our patterns of consumerism are strongly linked to the culture of home ownership.

We should also recall what Frederick Engels said about mortgages "...chaining the workers by this property to the factory in which they work."

The British economy, like that of the US, is now intrinsically linked to the fate of the housing market. Over the past 17 years house price inflation has represented one of the key drivers of economic growth, even though this growth is largely illusory. What has become clear in the US - and will soon reach Britain - is just how fragile this reliance on house prices is.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with buying your own home, but we need to think about what impact it has on our society and environment. To do this, we need to look beyond some of the historic and ideological prejudices that have built up against renting in general and council housing in particular.

Just as the costs of bad housing are sometimes indirect, so too are the benefits of good housing. When we consider post-war housing policy, we should try to calculate the real value to the nation of two generations of council housing. My dad was born in rented, private sector slum housing in the East End, but when he was seven, along with 25,000 others, his family was offered a new council house in Dagenham. Without this move to a new home with a garden, inside toilet, affordable rent and security of tenure, it is impossible to believe that my dad's family would have had the stability, good health and relative material comfort that they enjoyed. And if my dad had not had these things, it's unlikely I would have had them. If we multiply this experience by the millions of people who have lived in and benefited from council housing, we arrive at a more accurate assessment of the value of direct state investment in building affordable homes.

The deterioration of council housing has been well chronicled, often by people who never liked it in the first place, but there's no point pretending that council housing is a panacea or that it hasn't had serious problems. There have been systemic failures in the way that council housing has been run, but it is impossible to disconnect this from nearly three decades of progressive cuts in funding, linked to increasing stigmatisation of council tenants. This has contributed to an atmosphere of despair and cynicism that extends from the town hall to the local housing office. An ex colleague of mine once said that he had gone to work for a housing association because he was "sick of saying no to people".

On her first day in office the new housing minister, Caroline Flint, decided not to talk about the chronic undersupply of affordable housing, but to launch an attack on the character of council tenants. Leaving aside the details of what were, to put it kindly, badly thought-through proposals, what they indicate is that council tenants are now fair game.

To abuse council tenants in the mid-1970s was to abuse one third of the population and almost certainly a friend or member of your family. With the progressive erosion of council housing in the following years, council tenants have become a smaller, but easier, target. The "chav" character is one example, but it was best captured by the television programme Little Britain. In one sketch, over the image of a tower block, the narrator says, "In Britain, poor people live in council housing." I recently heard a more vulgar example at a football match between West Ham and Liverpool, when a supporter of the London team shouted, "You council cunts!" at the Liverpool supporters, as if an association with the first of the C words - "council" - captured everything he despised.

But such prejudices now have official sanction, as illustrated by Ms Flint's first day outburst. Her predecessor was forced to shelve plans in the current Housing Bill that sought to introduce means testing for access to council housing. This would be a fundamental rejection of the principles of the welfare state and of the government's own comprehensive policy review in the Hills Report. It would again run the risk of repeating the disastrous mistakes of the US, where access to decent, public, low cost housing has always been means tested. The result has been the creation of ghettos of poverty, overwhelmingly inhabited by non-whites, single parents, the elderly and the disabled. As the Hills Report shows, this social and ethnic stratification is already occurring in Britain. Sadly, I fear that another attempt will be made to introduce means testing for council housing, unless there is a fundamental rethink of policy.

The first generation of council housing took place in response to the appalling housing conditions of the Victorian slums, the second as the result of the Blitz. It's time for the third generation.

The core principles of council housing will remain the same: affordable rents, secure tenancies, public ownership and democratic control. With 3 million existing tenants, many of whom have said no to privatisation, and 1.4 million on the waiting list, the demand for council housing is indisputable. Here are just some of the things that third generation council housing can deliver.

1) Public housing on public land

The government persists with the absurdity of encouraging local councils and other public authorities to sell off their land. Every day millions of pounds worth of public assets are being lost, often with negligible returns to the public purse.

The huge long term benefits of retaining the value of public land have been recognised by a range of authorities. Taking the volatile cost of land out of the housing development equation will release massive resources. Local authorities not only own much of the land, but also have the knowledge and expertise to deal with the necessary legal and planning transactions. This would substantially speed up the development process and make it cheaper. In this way, building council housing could make a substantial impact on the government's target for new homes.

2) Low energy, zero carbon council homes

New Labour wants all new homes to be "zero carbon" by 2016 and expects the private sector to build them. Very few developers intend to meet this target. As the market falls, they will put profit before reducing damage to our environment.

Using public resources presents the best - perhaps the only - opportunity to build sustainable homes. The demands of providing zero carbon homes are substantial, but it can only be done as part of a national strategy, overseen by government, but devolved to local authorities and elected councillors.

How we live in our homes is as important as how we build them. Because of its public ownership, ethos and direct links to the local democratic process, council housing is far better placed to promote energy efficient homes than are private, unaccountable housing developers. According to the 2005 English House Condition Survey council homes are already among the most energy efficient in the country. Technologies like combined heat and power are far more viable based on the communal heating principle that has long been a feature of council housing. Britain's recycling rates still lag way behind those of other countries, but it is impossible to disconnect this from people's housing conditions. Investing in council housing would give people a real incentive to care for their local environment.

3) Council housing and community cohesion

We hear a great deal about our fractured, atomised society, but very little about how we combat the culture of individualism that alienates many of our communities and particularly young people. Council housing can offer an alternative. When people are poorly, expensively and insecurely housed, it's no wonder they find little energy or motivation for wider community activities or participation.

Well built, well maintained, well managed council housing has the potential to dissolve the social boundaries in our society. Despite the attacks of the last 25 years, council housing is still far more socially and ethnically mixed and integrated than suburban monocultures. The many community projects that flourish on council estates, not least the dynamic history of tenant campaigns, are a testimony to this.

4) Modern local services and local jobs

Investing in a third generation of council housing offers huge potential for devolving local services and creating local jobs. To do this it will be necessary to brush off some old ideas.

There is a stack of evidence to show that housing services are best provided at local, estate-based level, by people who are properly trained and have permanent contracts of employment. The ever-increasing sub-contracting and casualisation of housing work, together with the growth of remote call centres, have contributed to poorer, less accountable, less accessible services, as well as substantial increases in disrepair, crime and "anti-social behaviour". The return of the resident caretaker, estate handyperson and local housing office should be a vital part of a new era for council housing.

It's important to see the current state of housing in an international context. I have already referred to the important policy parallels with the US, but the common threads extend much further. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis graphically illustrates the way the "Washington Consensus" has influenced housing policy around the globe. One example Davis describes is the way that governments have promoted urban regeneration schemes that promote private luxury housing over affordable rented housing. In the name of producing mixed communities traditional working class areas have seen a process of gentrification that is thinly veiled social and ethnic engineering.

New Labour wants to put the final nail in the coffin of mainstream British council housing - a unique service that has served the needs of millions for generations. If unchallenged, the consequences could be disastrous. Council tenants won't let this happen. Gordon Brown needs to climb off his blinkered, ideological horse and admit that the majority of people want to see a future for council housing - now more than ever - but one that is based on taking the best of the past and combining it with a new vision for the council housing of the future.