What’s happened to all the social housing?

We as a nation were once hugely proud of our public housing. The Becontree estate was initially held in high esteem and commonly thought of as a significant improvement following the inner city slums of interwar East London. Estates such as Becontree, and their high-rise ‘city in the sky’ counterparts were host to residents of mixed social and economic backgrounds. Communities blossomed, and people took pride in their homes. Most importantly, housing was affordable. This seems a utopian vision in comparison to the present day.

In the 1970s, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher embarked upon a programme of privatisation of state assets in an attempt to reduce state spending. As part of this policy came the sales of British Telecom, British Rail, British Gas and the closure of mines. Surprisingly, the most profitable asset sold was state owned housing. Much of this was sold under the Right to Buy scheme, which offered significant discounts to council tenants. A pattern emerged in that a large proportion of the housing bought under the scheme was desirable, suburban housing in largely middle class areas. A policy thought initially by the Conservative government to be highly egalitarian resulted in increased inequality. Councils were frequently left with the least suitable, smallest and least desirable homes from which they could house those struggling to make ends meet.

Large discounts offered under right to buy also made it possible for residents to sell their properties onwards at market price, making large profits in the process. Whilst beneficial for the minority that could afford homes initially, landlords and developers increased rents and prices to levels unaffordable for a large proportion of the population. With relatively low levels of house building today, and a growing population, basic economics suggests that demand is beginning to outstrip supply, resulting in a higher cost of housing for us all.

State owned housing was partially replaced by housing allowance. Oddly, although it has enabled large numbers of vulnerable people to gain access to housing, it has also acted as a transfer of wealth to landlords, developers and speculators. This is because when such large numbers of homes are in private hands, large amounts of housing allowance are spent in the private rents.

Ironically, Conservative governments have in recent years cut housing allowance. This has forced individuals, couples and families out of the houses and communities they once called home. Why? Because housing allowance in a landscape of private home ownership and a volatile private rental market is costing the government too much. However the huge increases in private home ownership have been actively encouraged by Conservative policy. Meanwhile, state owned house building has faced a relative hiatus, keeping prices high, and existing state housing stocks have fallen into disrepair.

Is this a better, cheaper approach to housing than keeping the money in public hands? I think not. In my view the Conservative government has taken a sound housing model and instilled unnecessary inequality. The private rental market will always be a part of sound housing policy, but it is essential that the state retains, builds and maintains high quality housing to create security for those truly in need of it. Our constituency is a model of this outlook. Labour in Dagenham and Rainham is doing a commendable job in overseeing the redevelopment of the Leys estate as well as the Gascoigne estate in Barking. Both are highly progressive developments, which will feature council owned and affordable private homes for hard working local individuals and families.

Noel Moka – Young Labour Party member in Whalebone Ward