You can tell an Election is coming.
The Tories, in a desperate scramble to get their policy together, are making increasingly extreme announcements on housing.
The right wing “think tank” Policy Exchange has suggested housing associations could be privatised, and that if they took on additional debt onto their balance sheet they would somehow be able to build twice as many homes.
Last week, Ian Duncan Smith suggested the Tories could clinch an overall majority by giving away social housing. IDS has proposed that if council tenants who are in receipt of Housing Benefit obtain a job for a year should be given their homes. If they sell the home immediately they would get to keep 2/3 of the proceeds. IDS has also suggested extending the Right To Buy to the tenants of housing associations. This may all seem crazy, except for two caveats - firstly, giving away Council homes to sitting tenants was first proposed as long ago as 1972, by Peter Walker; it did not proceed then, but a diluted version of the same idea emerged in 1980 as the Right To Buy. Secondy, Localis came up with the idea prior to the last election that rents should be increased, with Housing Benefit “taking the strain”. This has come to pass. Half a million more people are in receipt of Housing Benefit now compared to 2010, creating a total bill of £25billions (3% of all public expenditure). 40% of HB is paid to private landlords (many of who are profiting from renting former Council homes).
Housing is one key area where there is clear water between what the Tories are doing, and what an incoming Labour government would do. It is also a topic that highlights a clear difference in views of where we have come from and where we may be heading.
From 1945 through to 1979, there was an agreed national consensus that State provision of social housing, through general taxation, was the right and proper thing to do, and created a national asset, like the NHS. Between 1948 and 1978, Councils built, on average, 90,000 new homes each year; in 2013/14, Councils built fewer than 1,000 homes.
This consensus was never questioned, and ironically the high point of Council house building, in 1955, when 300,000 homes were completed, was under Harold Macmillan, as Minister of Housing and Health. In 1980, Macmillan referred to the Right To Buy as “giving away the family silver”.
Millions of people in this country owe their wellbeing to the wonderful social housing the UK possessed. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, made £20 billion available to bring the stock up to the Decent Homes Standard. Labour has a proud history on investment in social housing, and the Party has committed to building 200,000 homes a year by 2020, which is more than double what was delivered in 2014 but still some way short of the numbers needed to meet just existing demand.
Social housing has been an essential part of the fabric of British society for more than 90 years. It has helped young people when they cannot afford to buy or to rent privately, and given a secure base to build the rest of their lives. It also provides a critical safety net for people falling on hard times, and a secure home for disabled and vulnerable people.
The UK obsession with home ownership makes us distinct from the rest of western Europe, where renting is much more the “norm”. It also skews the UK economy, and making us much more vulnerable to the troughs of economic downturn.
With 1.7 million people on Council waiting lists, 1 in 4 adults aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents, and 60% of private new homes in London being bought by overseas investors, urgent and radical actions and interventions are required if we are to begin to address the housing crisis that is getting worse year on year.