It might seem a masochistic exercise to read what is, in effect, a real-time account of the sustained assault on council housing and its residents that occurred since 2010 but, on this occasion, it’s one I recommend. The Red Brick Blog is a product of the Labour Housing Group, affiliated to the Labour Party but describing itself – correctly, I believe – as ‘the place for progressive housing debate … open to anyone interested in the progressive debate about housing, communities, and wider politics’. As this anthology of over 100 of its past posts suggests, it’s been one of the most authoritative and best-informed forums for the analysis of contemporary housing policy of the last decade.
As you would expect, many of the posts deal with that assault in properly passionate but forensic detail. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government set out their stall early on – a 50 percent cut in cash terms in social housing investment in 2011. By 2016, as past editor and contributor Monimbo records, the Government was spending £43 billion on Help to Buy and ‘Starter Homes’ for first-time buyers and just £18 billion on affordable housing.
Subsequent posts unpick the multi-pronged nature of this attack on social housing – housing associations (too often not the good guys) converting homes to ‘affordable rent’ and voluntarily selling off their housing; Right to Buy where the promise of one-to-one replacement was rapidly forgotten (the actual figure was about one-in-seven); the inadequate powers open to local authorities to leverage planning gain to community benefit further weighted towards developers; regeneration schemes which generally reduced social housing stock; and so on. Many of you will be familiar with this broad picture but it’s salutary to see it delineated with such force and clarity.
The consequences, of course, were obvious – new social housing reduced to historically low levels, the rise of homelessness and of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation, increased overcrowding and rising house prices. A housing crisis in short. All this did indeed, as the title of the anthology – reprised from a powerful post by Steve Hilditch on ‘Beveridge: 70 Years On’ claims – mark a ‘return to squalor’.
Whilst such criticisms might be seen by some as politically partisan, Red Brick is scathing on the economic illiteracy of this approach. Harrow Council, for example, spent £500,000 buying back 35 former council homes sold at discount to house the homeless. Spending on Housing Benefit was massively increased as the Government forced significant increases in social rents and many more people into the expensive private rented sector.
Social security – increasingly translated into social insecurity – was the other great target of austerity, of course. The bedroom tax stands out for its basic inhumanity but the ‘reform’ with the greatest impact were the cuts to Local Housing Allowance in 2010 reckoned to affect 900,000 households, an average loss of £12 a week from a £126 benefit.
Fixed-term tenancies, ‘Pay to Stay’ (aimed at higher-earning tenants), the forced sale of high-value council homes all receive due attention as further attempts to undermine council housing. That not all these changes were fully implemented is a tribute to housing campaigners and the common sense of at least some legislators.
All this is duly depressing but a quality of the anthology is the positive case consistently made for a significant and viable public housing sector. That’s seen, firstly, in the necessary dismantling of some of the negative myths surrounding the sector. Those privileged ‘lifetime tenancies’ enjoyed by council tenants since 1981? Nothing more than the fact that a tenancy is not time limited and that public sector landlords are required like others to provide grounds for possession and get a court order.
Most powerful is the challenge to the argument that council housing is, in any meaningful sense, subsidised housing. Broadly speaking, social housing runs a surplus with initial loans paid off and maintenance cost covered. Sometimes an element of cross-subsidy from pooled rents helps finance newbuild. The further belief that sub-market social rents should emulate the far higher levels of the private rented sector is, firstly, to give quite unwarranted respect to a dysfunctional and failing housing free market and, secondly, to ignore the huge additional cost to the Treasury in benefits that increased social rents would bring.
Conversely, it’s the case that owner occupiers and private landlords enjoy a range of ‘subsidies’, ranging from renovation grants and mortgage interest support if unemployed to Right to Buy discounts and shared ownership deals. The most even-handed response here is to recognise that public spending on housing in various forms is not a cost but an investment.
Nowhere was the argument better made for investment in social housing than by SHOUT – the Campaign for Social Housing – formed back in 2014 when that case was far more marginalised than it has now, thankfully, become. SHOUT and its landmark 2015 report are properly lauded in these pages. The bottom line? – that a programme of 100,000 new social rent homes a year would cost ‘well under 1 per cent of planned 2013-14 spending; the equivalent of less than 1p on income tax, or just 13 days of welfare spending; and less than 15% of the planned cost of HS2’. The value – though reasonable projections could be made in terms of job creation and savings on Housing Benefit and less readily quantifiably in terms of personal and social benefit and health and educational outcomes – was and is inestimable.
Red Brick records subsequent expansions on this theme from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2018 and Shelter in 2019. The Overton Window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – had, as it noted, shifted. Even Theresa May, then Prime Minister, appeared a convert though the blog was correct to view this with a degree of scepticism. The role of housing and tenant activists and campaigners, a Labour Party belatedly converted to a significant programme of social housing newbuild, Tory overreach and the tragedy of Grenfell are credited with this hard-fought success which – despite the current uptick in new council homes – remains to be fulfilled at scale.
Grenfell which, of course, features significantly, reminds us of another theme broached frequently in the anthology – the need for a meaningful tenants’ voice. In 2012, the book laments how progress made in this regard by the New Labour government in its latter years was lost in the Coalition’s ‘bonfire of red tape’, one consequence of which was the very real fire at Grenfell.
There’s much else to absorb from this over-200 page collection – the need for planning and land reform, changes to the leasehold system, the impact of Covid 19, and some useful broader housing history touching on John Wheatley, Harold Wilson and including a thoughtful review of my own book on council housing.
It’s a book of bite-sized chunks to dip into (the lack of an index is one regrettable omission) but the whole – edited and significantly contributed to by Steve Hilditch, the pseudonymous Monimbo, Karen Buck (an MP who brings a rare and valuable personal and professional experience of social housing to her work), Alison Inman and many others – is an important record of a tumultuous, too often dispiriting, phase of housing history. I recommend it and hope that it offers not only a perspective on the recent past but a guide to what can be a more positive future.
The anthology is available as a paperback for £9.99 and as a Kindle book at £6.99. It can be purchased here. All royalties (around £2.50 per copy) will go to the Labour Housing Group.