Over the next three weeks I will be taking an in-depth look at the problems and some of the proposed solutions to what I sincerely believe is one of the most pressing yet under-discussed issues of today: namely, social housing policy. As the title suggests, I do realise that not many people flick through the channels late at night or scan the top shelf in their local garage looking for the uncensored, full picture on this issue. However, through the use of some witty double entendres and a promise of absolutely no accompanying photographs of Margaret Thatcher, I would like to think that we drag this debate from minor columns all the way up to at least page 3. So here goes: Part I – The State of the Nation…
The State of the Nation
It is, of course, all Maggie’s fault. She sold them off, didn’t she. The introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ under the Housing Act 1980 was a watershed event for councils all over the country. From the start local authorities had been able to sell off their houses, but not until the introduction of the RTB they were not forced to do so. And whilst up until 1980 the production of new homes year on year had far exceeded the numbers sold, following the passing of this policy the period of growth halted and began a decline. The number of houses managed by London’s councils shrunk from 840,000 in 1984 to just over 500,000 by the end of the century. Nationally 1 million houses were sold within 10 years. But even more importantly than this – if at all possible – is the fact that the majority of dwellings that were sold were houses rather than flats. So ‘right to buy’ has now drastically reduced the supply of family houses, fatally altered the balance of council housing stock and left families squeezing into 2 bedroom flats all across the country.
But as much as I would like to blame Maggie for everything, that would sadly just be a copout. Noting that in the eight years from 1979 the Thatcher Government built 415,814 council houses, why oh why do we put up with a ‘Labour’ government which in the eight years from 1997, according to the House of Commons Library, built just 4,278?
Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick – now Agriculture and Fisheries Minister but speaking as Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2005 – makes the usual excuses, which are particularly sickening to hear from an MP responsible for one of the most overcrowded constituencies, in on of the most overcrowded boroughs in the country (Poplar and Canning Town in Tower Hamlets):
“As of 2005… social landlords built 177,000 and local authorities 1,365. Our housing priority was the £19 billion backlog in social housing repairs and the 2 million homes that had fallen below the decency threshold. We have attacked that problem. We are well on our way to making sure that, by 2010, 2 million homes will be up to the decency threshold.”
As of January this year, the number of people on the council housing waiting list topped 1.7 million. Even the most tarted up council flats in the world cannot meet this need alone.
The underlying principle of council housing remains an indisputable fact: the private sector is incapable of providing adequate housing for all, and that state intervention is required to ensure there was good quality affordable housing for low-income households. At a time when the need for interventionist policies within the economy have become even more pronounced, this is just another example of a government who seem wedded to a minimalist, apologetic approach towards free-marketers. But beyond even the hard figures of those needing housing is an almost more important, infrequently told story about the social, economic, educational and health-related repercussions that emerge from a lack of adequate council housing.
Governments and politicians are always more than happy to band around the words “healthcare” and “education”, because these have an immediate and emotional relation to the words “children” and “illness”. But, as a government review in 2004 concluded, the links between overcrowding and particular health conditions and educational underachievement is chronic. In both children and adults, overcrowding can clearly been seen to contribute towards poor respiratory conditions, meningitis and helicobacter pylori which is a cause of stomach ulcers. Parents who do not even have enough room in their homes to provide their children with a flat surface to do their homework on frequently see better housed children outperforming their own in the same schools. And the stress of several having to share bedrooms – especially for pubescent young adults of different sexes – can lead to a breakdown in family relationships and to homelessness for older ‘children’.
And yet, currently any unoccupied room at night – such as a sitting room – is classified as a bedroom under the current legal definitions of overcrowding. The term ‘affordable’ remains applicable to any house available below the market rate, with no further legal definition in place.
Finally, we need greater commitment and government intervention in order to ensure the future sustainability of the sector. Low cost housing built by provide developers is destined to meet only the lowest and most strictly enforced of targets for CO2 emmissions. Yet, as Dr Brenda Boardman, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute argues, reducing emissions from energy use in people’s homes is “absolutely crucial” if the government was going to achieve the soon-to-be legally binding target. “It is crucial because it is large. Depending on what year’s measurements you use, it accounts for about 25-27% of all the UK’s carbon emissions.”
The full extent of both the immediate and secondary problems caused by nearly 30 years of under-funding in our nation’s social housing policy could fill pages and pages of testimony. There are, however, some interesting ideas emerging outside of Westminster as to how we can move beyond this seemingly public/private dichotomy, revitalising a genuine council housing sector but compensating and promoting low-cost homeownership at the same time. Next week: is council housing a right? Is home ownership ultimately a desirable end for all people? And what lessons can we learn from ‘right to buy’. Sexy.