My apologies for not posting much on the blog recently. My book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April and things have been hectic since then. I’ve more posts in the pipeline – on Nottingham, Hull, Thetford, Liverpool and London but just need to find the time to complete the research and write them up. Guest posts from people with expertise in their local area are also still very welcome.
In the meantime, there have been some great reviews for the book – from Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian, Rowan Moore in the Observer, Hugh Pearman in the Spectator and Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times amongst others. And lots and lots of media interest – I’ve been on ‘You and Yours’ on Radio 4, on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio London and local radio stations in Hull and Newcastle with Lancashire and Leeds forthcoming. I also did a slot on Sky News and recorded an interview for BOOKTalk on BBC Parliament. I’ve done talks on the book to groups in London, Manchester and Nottingham with more coming up across the country.
So that’s my excuse but, if that comes across as self-important, I want to say two things. Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has read and supported the blog since it began over five years ago. Your interest helped the blog succeed – it’s had over 960,000 views to date – and the book which followed would not have been possible without you.
Secondly, that welcome for the book and media interest tells us that its subject-matter is timely and important. This reflects, I think, both a very broad concern over the current housing crisis and an increasing belief that a significant programme of public housing is needed to solve it. People are hungry for a positive (but open-eyed) narrative of council housing which records its past achievements and testifies to its potential.
Nearly all the interviews have revolved around three key questions.
One, ‘why council housing?’ The simple answer is that the private sector has never been able or willing to supply decent affordable housing on the scale required, not in the nineteenth century, nor today.
Two, ‘what went wrong?’ I will always challenge the premise and prejudice of that question; beyond the stigmatising stereotypes, so much didn’t go wrong for so many. But I also try to explain what did change and how, in many ways, council estates are better understood as the victim of that change rather than its agent.
Three, ‘can we build again?’ The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. We have built huge numbers of decent council homes in the past when the country was poorer than it is at present, sometimes in periods of genuine austerity. We have the means to build; we require the political will and vision.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine, I made the economic case for a renewed programme of public housing as both an investment in our people and their well-being and as an essential part of any broader housing market. Currently, we choose to subsidise an inefficient market system and private landlordism. Investment in secure, decent and affordable social housing would improve the lives and well-being of millions and in the longer-term, pay for itself. In the shorter term, it might – as the tragic case of Grenfell Tower reminds us – save lives.
And that brings us back to the moral case for properly funded and resourced public housing, as compelling now as it was when the long, proud story of council housing began in the mid-nineteenth century.