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A Sideways Look: housing

(originally appeared in Freedom, August 2012)
A few welcome signs have been emerging from the embattled world of council housing. Where I live, the elected Mayor recently considered a report that suggested building up to 250 new council homes. While this is a modest number, and fraught with difficulties, it is at least a step in the right direction.

For most of the last twenty five years, the only social housing that has been built has been by housing associations. There’s been the odd council flat or two but the political will of all main parties has been to demolish or sell off council homes. Tied to this low priority, council housing has been portrayed as subsidised housing for people on welfare. Anyone with any sort of aspiration would aim for something better, that they owned themselves; this was the Thatcherite myth. Right-to-Buy took large chunks out of the good homes available, leaving the worst and a legacy of underinvestment.

Where estates were demolished, or “regenerated”, a euphemism for trying to change the social make up of the area, any replacements were a mix of private and housing association. Governments both red and blue have tried to induce council tenants to transfer to new landlords, often without success despite multi-million pound carrots of investment.

But despite all the denigration, the need for council housing has never gone away. It’s bad enough being young and single and moving every few months. Imagine doing it with a family and all the ties to schools and friends and relatives. The government complain that poor people shouldn’t live in nice areas, subsidised by housing benefit. But it’s not the poor people being subsidised – it’s the landlords. And one reason that land­lords are doing so well is that there is no alternative. Councils don’t really have waiting lists any more, but if they did the average wait might see you past retirement age.

There is a massive shortage of housing, exacerbated by the prices paid by those well-off enough to consider buying. And there aren’t many of them – my old boss has just moved into his fourth rented house in three years. Building more council housing is a no-brainer under almost any sort of economics: it creates jobs and would bring a return on the investment – they wouldn’t be standing empty any time soon. So, if the economics makes sense, it can only be politics that is stopping it happening.

And of course it was politics. Council housing has been seen as something that only affected the working class, and not even all of us. As all parties competed for the same aspirational voters they focused on cheap mortgage costs. We know how that turned out. But council housing is now a distant aspiration for millions of people who want some security of tenure and a rent that is at least lower than their likely wage. It’s no surprise that politicians are now sniffing around the issue again. Much as I dislike the politics around it, it can only be a good thing to have more homes for people who need them. The politicians will then of course worry that the housing bubble in the south east might burst. We can only wish. People who buy a house to live in will not be massively affected if it does, unless they’ve borrowed more than they can afford to pay. People who’ve bought loads because they fancied a life as the sort of parasite who coins it in while refusing to do repairs, well, what do you think should happen to them?

Svartfrosk

(Taken from Freedom, August 2012)

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