Council Housing is not charity

Hello, my name is Clare Joseph and I am a Labour councillor for Victoria ward in Hackney. I grew up in Hackney and I live in social housing. The principal reason I ran for election in 2018 was that I was surrounded by building development in Hackney, but so little of it was council housing. And it made me angry.

What has become apparent to me is that the term ‘council housing’ means something different to me than it does to many other people. When we are talking about council housing, we are not always talking about the same thing.

I see council housing as a sensible economic device that helps provide stability to the housing market, whilst at the same time ensuring that there is decent housing available for the entire population. Whereas I think many people see council housing as something more akin to charity.

This perception of council housing being charity is, sadly, quite reasonable if you look at the system we have in place today. The dire situation we find ourselves in is a result of a lack of funding for building council housing, the 1980 housing act and right to buy and to an extent, Labour’s 1977 housing act which gave councils the legal duty to house people in priority of need.

“Something the vulnerable are obliged to compete for”

Of course, if something is scarce perhaps it makes sense to give it to the most in need. Unfortunately, however, this helps perpetuate the idea of council housing as charity, which in turn colours thinking and affects the decisions made around it. Rather than simply being decent housing – a sensible way of housing the population – it becomes something the very vulnerable are obliged to compete for.

If many people on the left have come to view council housing as charity, then I can only assume that the majority of the country thinks the same. How can we expect people who might not have much themselves, ‘hard working families’, to vote for a policy that provides charity to a few and nothing to them? Would the NHS still be around if only a small percentage of the population could use it?

To win the argument for council housing, we must return to the original premise. It needs to be council housing that benefits everyone. How? Well first of all, under a Labour government, it must be available to everyone. The only exception being – if you are a home owner you cannot rent a council home – but your children can when they come of age.

We must emphasise the economic benefits of council housing. If we create council housing en masse we will control a significant share of the rental market, and as council rents are lower this will have a slowing effect on private rents and in turn house prices. Renting or owning your own home could be brought back within the grasp of those who thought it was impossible. I think some Tories might even vote for that! If this is market interference, then what are first time buyer schemes? They either use ‘tax payers money’ to effectively give a subsidy to developers or they allow developers to build risk free as they have guaranteed buyers who are loaded with the debt. There’s absolutely nothing ‘free market’ about that. The effect of these schemes is to further inflate the housing market. Indeed the Government has pledged £53.14 billion between 2019-2024 towards the private housing market, first time buyers and associated infrastructure. One might even say that building council housing is actually a far more ‘conservative’ way of interfering in the market.

Another benefit of more council housing is that a minimum standard of housing conditions would be created. Why would anyone rent a mould ridden flea pit on the private market when they could rent a decent home from the council? Private landlords would have to at least meet council standards or lose business.

I’m sure I don’t even need to remind you that if we built council housing we could significantly cut the housing benefit bill, much of which is spent on private rent. The housing benefit bill was £22 billion last year – it was even more a few years ago – this is after the introduction of the Local Housing Allowance cap in 2008!

These economic arguments are sensible arguments that have a much better chance of convincing people of the need for council housing, I believe, than appeals to charity and guilt tripping people into voting in the interests of those supposedly less fortunate than themselves; I think these are the arguments Labour should be making if we want to see council housing being built again on a mass scale.

Repeal Right to Buy

Now one thing we need to consider, once we get council housing being created en masse, is how we might protect it from future Margaret Thatchers. We must repeal right to buy, but how can we safeguard our stock against governments who may want to undermine council housing and start selling it off again? Can we put it into trusts? Unfortunately the major council housing transfers to housing associations have not worked out well, and yet many regeneration schemes continue to hand over council housing to housing associations. The Labour green paper on housing written under Jeremy Corbyn made a good start in planning for the future but called for the ‘championing of housing associations’.

I am not sure we can call housing associations our friends any longer. They benefit from charitable status (there it is again – charity!!) but in fact they build only 5-10 per cent social rent each year and sell off many homes. Despite all this they benefit from GLA funding. We need council housing.

Another point to consider is the standards of the housing we build – the Labour green paper supported Decent Homes 2 – to make council housing desirable to all it needs to be of the highest quality and of generous design. I know that a lot of what has been built in the past few years, in Hackney at least, has been brilliantly designed – and that’s very promising. I keep coming back to this idea of charity, but why were so many council homes previously built to mean specifications? Because we were meant to be grateful?

The lockdown has shown us the importance of having even just a small amount of outdoor space – a balcony is a relatively inexpensive addition to a flat – if we’re building upwards we are only borrowing space from the birds! All blocks should have balconies and a Labour government should prioritise housing standards across all sectors.

What about now you ask? We are not in government. No, but we are living through unusual times, to say the least! The pandemic has shown companies that a lot of work can be done remotely; many people are leaving London or have lost their jobs and this combined with Brexit, the forthcoming end of both the stamp duty holiday and the government’s moratorium on evictions may create havoc in the private housing market. Perhaps the pending economic crisis will mean society as a whole is ready to listen to arguments that will result in a less precarious way of life.

And if now is the time to put our case.. to sow the seeds and embed our arguments into the public psyche.. then council housing FOR ALL must be our mantra because the biggest problem we face is public perception. We will never get more council housing unless we get a broad coalition across the country that supports it. It is not the only solution to the housing problems the country faces, we must consider the buy to let market and the principle of second home ownership, but council housing must be central to a Labour government’s remedies for the current housing mess.

The way we ensure that is by saying no more charity– Labour will make council housing advantageous to the majority of people.

FOR THE MANY, NOT THE FEW

Hackney Labour Councillor, Clare Joseph

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