Soaring homelessness, spiralling rents and home ownership beyond the reach of all but a few – this is Britain’s housing situation today. And it’s all down to governments selling off what was never theirs to sell – our precious council housing stock writes John Ellison in the Morning Star.
WE were recently, and painfully, reminded that our precious government has sold off much more of the family silver over the past year. Such as what was left of public ownership of the Royal Mail, plus part-ownership of Eurostar, plus bank assets temporarily “nationalised” in response to the 2008-9 mad-bank-lending crisis.
What must be borne firmly in mind is that it is our family silver that has been sold off. Ours. It didn’t belong to David Cameron and George Osborne and not to “Lord and Lady Muck in the great house.” It was ours, not theirs.
Among the sell-offs have been millions of former local council-owned homes under the infamous right to buy scheme for tenants, and today the House of Lords is to debate “beat social housing to death” measures in the Housing and Planning Bill. It is a grave moment.
This Bill, which millionaire landlord Cameron chivvied through the House of Commons with small hours MP attendance on a Tuesday night in early January, notoriously introduces institutional insecurity for council tenants (topping up that produced by the bedroom tax).
It replaces permanent tenancies for council tenants (with succession rights for children) with two to five-year terms, and for better-off tenants imposes market rents.
It ramps up the right to buy scheme by requiring councils to sell their highest-value homes when they become vacant, and extends to housing association tenancies rights to buy and to large purchase price discounts.
It must, if enacted, deepen the present housing disaster. Shadow housing minister John Healey warned last month that it would mean the loss of close to 200,000 council homes by 2020.
Only a generation ago, in the dark transitional year of 1979, the Thatcher-led Tory government set about ditching the class compromise forced on the rich by the people’s representatives in the 1945-51 Labour government.
These, of course were impelled by public demands generated by the sacrifices and destruction of the world war that had just passed, by the bitter experiences of mass unemployment, wretched housing, and bleak poverty of the decades before, and by a new and potent consciousness that the rich should not have things all their own way.
That class compromise involved accepting public ownership of roughly a fifth of British industry, including railways, telephones, steel, coal, electricity, gas, water and more.
That large public sector, supplemented by a third of Britain’s homes in council ownership, was owned by the nation, and not by a little bit of the nation, the rich bit.
By 1997 all this, including two million council homes, had been sold off, and during Blair and Brown’s New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 fewer than 8,000 council homes were built.
Between 2012 and 2014 a pitiful 4,500 council homes were being built (according to a freedom of information disclosure), to be matched against more than £1.5 billion received from more right to buy sell-offs, stimulated by discounts of £75,000 (in London, £100,000).
Back in 1979 council rents were, for most tenants, not modest but manageable. Around 10 per cent of households rented privately, and though private rents were often significantly higher that council rents, a system of rent regulation offset landlord aspirations.
Council homes were the first bloody victims of privatisation by the Thatcher government.
Many had been constructed according to exacting post-war standards. These homes were part of our family silver, even if the Tories regarded them as over-cossetting their “servant class” occupiers.
The 1980 right to buy scheme — supposedly an act of goodwill directed at encouraging home ownership — enabled tenants of council homes of three years’ standing to buy them at a substantial discount with the help of mortgage loans.
Thus tenant buyers who had paid a rent to the council and who bought their homes now slowly repaid a mortgage loan to a mortgage lender.
By 1989 1.5 million council homes had been sold, bringing in £17.5bn.
So councils lost homes and rents while mortgage lenders blossomed, and as new council housebuilding went into the doldrums — councils being banned from replacing sold homes — house prices shot up.
Right to buy for tenants without a “right to build” for councils naturally caused council waiting list numbers to shoot up too.
It implied — not advertised by the Tories — a great dent in the “right to live in a council home,” and also a “right to make large profits from lending.”
And before long, many homes bought by sitting tenants unable to keep up with mortgage repayments were sold on to private landlords.
Then came a second attack on council-owned housing — the transfer from 1988 of many remaining publicly owned homes (after councils had been starved for years of maintenance funds) to private housing associations (not all of which have functioned benevolently) which were allowed to borrow money to maintain homes when councils were not so licensed.
Alongside this came another gift to landlords — the obliteration of remaining rent controls for those privately renting, coupled with institutionalised insecurity for private tenants through short-term tenancies.
The near-abolition of council housebuilding during the 1980s and the upward spiral of rents compelled the provision of escalating housing benefit so that impossible rents could be paid. The landlords of close to five million households now receive this.
By 2012 only 1.7 million council homes survived, while housing associations owned 2.4 million. And right to buy continues, while, despite a government pledge to match one sold with one built, only one in 10 homes sold is being replaced.
Consider annual housebuilding figures. In 1968, more than 350,000 new homes — the post-war peak — were needed and built. Now after decades of inadequate housebuilding programmes, the case for an emergency return to large-scale construction is blindingly obvious.
Last year’s total new build (completed amid a chorus of complaints about shoddy, skimped work carried out with government-relaxed building inspection control) was 155,000. Housing charity Shelter calls for at least 250,000 new homes a year.
Consider too, figures and facts of desperation. Sleepers on the streets: in London alone more than 7,500 in 2015 (more than doubled over five years), according to Shelter. Homeless households in temporary accommodation: up to almost 65,000 in 2015.
There are desperate people denied proper homes who pay exorbitant rents for illegal homes dangerous to health and safety and beds-in-sheds and the like.
One more figure: nearly a third of MPs, including Cameron and Osborne, are themselves landlords.
The English Housing Survey published last year in respect of the year 2013-14 tells us more.
Of more than 22 million households in England, 7.4 million homes are owned outright by fortunate people, often not young.
Some 6.9 million owner-occupiers are mortgage-assisted, many with or at risk of arrears. That leaves 3.9 million in social housing (council and housing association), and as many as 4.4 million (almost 20 per cent of all households) in private rented accommodation, more than half of whom, according to Shelter, are struggling to pay their rents.
Meanwhile the average cost of a home in the UK nears £300,000, achievable only in imagination for most, while the average monthly private rent has risen to £739 (in London more than double that).
To the government’s deliberate refusal to address housing misery, and to its decision to pile on more, must be added its plans to cut housing benefit.
Estimates indicate that millions of households will take a hit. Other analysis suggests that the provision of specialist supported housing for the vulnerable, including many elderly, could be severely curtailed, placing several hundred thousand people at risk through closures of vast numbers of housing projects.
In the House of Lords today, voices of reason and humanity may help to ward off the sordid attacks in the Bill on social housing.
But whatever the outcome, the case for boosting campaigns for effective resolution of the present housing crisis is enormous.
And in the longer term, there is an equal need to rebuild our collection of family silver.
There will be a national demonstration to kill the Housing Bill on Sunday March 13 at noon, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3TL. For more information visit killthehousingbill.wordpress.com.