William Keegan: Was social housing New Labour's biggest domestic failing?

Written by Ashwin Rattan Saturday, 29 September 2012 21:07
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Taken from William Keegan's 'Saving the World'? Gordon Brown Reconsidered 


The adverse criticisms of Brown and his immediate circle are legion.


But one that shocked my informant most, and indeed shook me, was the reported response of a Brown aide when the point was made in private discussions that housing had been a seriously neglected area under New Labour.


By comparison with the great days in the early to mid-1950s when Harold Macmillan, as Minister for Housing, could boast of actually having achieved his ambitious target of building 300,000 new dwellings a year, New Labour’s record was abysmal. True, Macmillan had notoriously cut corners and relaxed standards (not safety standards); and true the Thatcher/Major governments were also negligent. But neglect during the Thatcher years was all the more reason for New Labour to attempt to redress the situation.


The extent of the neglect of housing in the UK during recent decades has been lucidly analysed by Dr Eoin Clarke, in ‘Private Renters – the Forgotten Millions who Abandoned Labour’ (The Red Book, Searching Finance).


Under the Thatcher ‘Right to Buy’ scheme the Conservatives sold 2 million council homes but replaced only a quarter (585,000 out of 2 million). “This means that from 1980 housing waiting lists have grown. Today 5 million men, women and children are on housing waiting lists for social homes, 45,000 are homeless and 4 million families struggle with £8,500 private rent bills as a result of the Tories’ actions.”


Under the Blair governments “the number of council sales…dramatically increased and the building of social housing halted. The UK’s population grew 4.41 million under Labour but the number of social homes continued to fall. A socialist (sic) PM did not see fit to invest in social housing.”


Dr Clarke is not opposed to the concept of council house sales.


“The Right to Buy (RTB) scheme launched by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 was initially a good thing. It enabled people with no stake in society, who had been paying rent faithfully all their lives to finally get on the property ladder and build an inheritance for their children.”


The problem was that councils were forbidden to retain the proceeds of sales of public sector housing; house building no longer remained a priority; and the rate of new building fell sharply. This had the effect of driving the poor homeless into the private rented sector, with all the familiar problems associated with unscrupulous landlords and the rising cost to the taxpayer of subsidising rents.


The obvious solution was a Macmillan-style building programme for social housing.


One should have thought that this might appeal to Gordon Brown, who most certainly felt strongly about poverty. But, by contrast with Macmillan’s ambitious targets all those years ago, under the Brown premiership the rate of new building for social housing was a somewhat inadequate 400 dwellings a year.


Here one comes up against the context in which the social goals of the Brown entourage appear to have clashed with the desire to continue riding on the crest of a wave of well-being associated with the asset price boom...


Thus, at one meeting under Brown as prime minister to discuss the general scene, one aide suggested that there was a serious housing crisis and an urgent need to build more social housing. To which someone who at the time was a trusted, if controversial, aide riposted:


“If we did that it would hit house prices and we should lose the election.”

Last modified on Saturday, 29 September 2012 21:55

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