Building a fairer country after the pandemic? It’s time for the return of the council house

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By Liam O’Farrell, Research Associate, City-REDI, University of Birmingham

“We are now in a situation where many young people can no longer get onto the housing ladder… [and] those in low paid jobs, doing what is now more widely recognised as essential work, often can’t even afford to live near the places they work.”

Even before Covid, we were in extraordinary times. In an age of events such as Brexit, climate change, and the continued reverberations of the 2008 financial crisis, there can be a tendency to think on an international scale. While global cooperation should of course be encouraged, we shouldn’t lose sight of the interventions on the local level that can begin building a fairer and more inclusive society. One such intervention would be the return of the humble council house.

Housing – an asset or a human right?

In many ways, it is strange that housing has become the principal asset of most people in the UK. After all, housing is recognised as a basic human right by the UN. It speaks to the skewed nature of Britain’s economy that shelter has been transformed into an asset bubble which the policies of successive governments have inflated. We are now in a situation where many young people can no longer get onto the housing ladder. Over the past decade, there has been a tremendous rise in rough sleeping, which is apparent to anyone who walks around any British city. Those in low paid jobs, doing what is now more widely recognised as essential work, often can’t even afford to live near the places they work.

“Homes for Heroes”

It doesn’t have to be this way. A new report from the Local Government Association has called for 100,000 council houses to be built every year to rent to key workers, comparing it to the “Homes for Heroes” that were built after the Second World War. This could have many positive impacts on our society, including dramatically cutting the housing benefit bill, ending rough sleeping, and acting as a massive stimulus to our struggling economy. For a recently elected government, already buffeted by crisis and scandal, this policy would also act as an important statement of values. Voters in so-called “red wall” seats, many of whom voted Conservative for the first time in 2019, may lean right on cultural matters. However, when it comes to economics, polling shows they overwhelmingly favour left-wing approaches. A commitment to new social housing would demonstrate that the government understands the real-life issues facing people in places like Dudley and Darlington.

What can we learn from the past and from other countries?

However, we clearly cannot flick a switch and produce hundreds of thousands of new houses overnight, particularly when the system at present only produces a fraction of that amount. Alongside building up capacity, there are also important conversations to be had about how these houses would be planned, learning from the mistakes of the past. The Democratic Foundation of the Just City project, which investigated the role that local institutions and processes play in pursuing socially just urban planning policies, came to interesting conclusions in this regard.

In a recent submission to an APPG, I made the case for new social housing, rather than simply “affordable” housing which is linked to inflated local rents, to be integrated into private developments. This would help us to not repeat the problem of mono-tenures (only social housing tenants, rather than a mixture of owner-occupied, private rental and council properties) on post-war estates that has clearly failed. There should be community research and targeted support for those already living in large housing estates, to raise the quality of life of residents and help them into employment or education. Right to Buy needs to be scrapped and planned further budget cuts to local authorities must be cancelled. In the short term, we could also learn from the experience of Berlin in introducing rent controls onto the private market. While this has had a negative impact on landlords’ profits, it has benefited wider society. Instead of spending up to 50% of their monthly earnings on rent, Berliners now have greater discretionary incomes to spend in the local economy, supporting jobs and businesses.

Devolving urban planning powers

Finally, urban planning powers should be devolved to the West Midlands Combined Authority, as has already happened in Manchester. The authority needs greater competencies to coordinate housing strategy. Collectively, these might sound like dramatic changes, but in many parts of the world they are established practice. More importantly, we know that such policies work. This pandemic has already forced the Conservatives to let go of their attachment to austerity. Looking to the future, they now need to overcome their ideological hostility towards social housing if we are to solve Britain’s housing crisis. This is not just about “homes for heroes”. It’s also about building a fairer, less unequal, and more united society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham. 

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