We have now come full circle on housing. After the Second World War a massive building programme for social housing was launched by the Attlee Government and continued by Macmillan through the 1950s.
Thatcher began to unwind this process in the 1980s by drastically reducing local authority house-building from 200,000 a year to just 30,000 a year by 1990, and by inaugurating the sell-off of Council housing through the Right to Buy Act of 1985.
New Labour continued the process, cutting the number of Council houses built to a mere 200-300 a year in the last decade, despite the number of households on the local authority waiting lists topping 1.8 million.
Now eviction from social housing is being used by some (Tory) Councils as a penalty if a member of the family has transgressed during the riots, and more insidiously if the hike in social housing rents as part of the cuts can’t be afforded by tens of thousands of families.
Of course this Tory-led government won’t build more than a trickle of social housing if it can help it, even though the need for it is vast. Their plan instead is to make existing Council tenants themselves pay for any new social housing built by doubling or even tripling rents, up to 80% of those in the private sector, in order to give private housebuilders the incentive to build because of the hugely increased profit this will yield them over the years. The obvious flaw in this plan is that Council tenants (and those who have been hived off to ALMOs) won’t be able to afford these new rents or anywhere near them. They will be forced out of their present houses and made to move to less expensive areas, maybe 50 or more miles away, at least 80,000 out of London and many more from the inner areas of other large cities.
This is punitive indeed. It is also a complete reversal of housing policy compared with 40 years ago. Then social housing (local authority and housing associations) was accepted as the responsibility of the whole community. Now it is a burden to be dispensed with by every means possible, even though (or perhaps because of) income differentials have soared, leaving the poorest and most vulnerable marooned and isolated as never before.
This is extraordinary when a new housebuilding programme would solve several different problems at once. It would provide new housing that nearly 2 million families are crying out for. It would significantly reduce unemployment, particularly bearing in mind the multipler effect of equipping those houses. It would greatly reduce the pressure-cooker impact of housisng stagnation in cities and towns throughout Britain. And it would make one important contribution to restoring the social cohesion which the riots have revealed as so badly fractured.