David Cameron’s announcement yesterday that social housing should not be for life came as a shock to many, not least some of his increasingly queasy Lib Dem coalition partners. It didn’t to me, or many others who have seen the frontline of a new battle on housing begun by flagship Tory councils in the past few years. And it is further worrying proof that, for all of the progressive mood music of the coalition, David Cameron still relies on the hardliners in his own party when it comes to making policy.
From 2008 to the beginning of this year I was the Labour election organiser and agent in Hammersmith, home to not only Tory A-List parliamentary candidate Shaun Bailey (who, in the event, was swept aside with some ease by Andy Slaughter’s energetic campaign) but also David Cameron’s “favourite” council, and its leader, Stephen Greenhalgh.
Greenhalgh, who sits at the apex of the Tory political machine in Hammersmith and Fulham, has had his sights fixed more widely than the borough boundary since the Tories took office in 2006. Housing is the battleground, and for purely partisan reasons, as he makes clear in this article for Conservative Home in February 2009:
We ask here whether this is the time to reform social housing. It may not be an issue for the current intake of Conservative MPs at this time, but it will become an issue for many new MPs elected from target marginals which have far higher levels of social housing. Figures supplied to Greg Hands MP from the Commons Library show that shadow housing minister Grant Shapps’s seat (Welwyn Hatfield) has the highest percentage of social rented housing of any Conservative seat. Some key targets have huge percentages: Hammersmith at 36 per cent, Westminster North at 30 per cent and Birmingham Edgbaston and Battersea both at 29 per cent.
Plainly, if social housing is a “problem”, it is only insofar as its residents have an annoying habit of denying the Conservatives victory in marginal seats. This narrative received dressing in predictable Thatcherite clothing: council housing entrenches deprivation and prevents social mobility, and social tenants would be far better off if the state relieved them of this burden.
Hammersmith and Fulham have a single solution to the social and political problems they saw in council housing: get rid of it, or at least a large part of it. By early 2009 we were aware of a number of large estates earmarked for demolition and redevelopment, amounting to over 5,000 homes in total.
More ominously – and most relevant for tenants lucky enough to not have Councillor Greenhalgh as their landlord – was the wider development of Tory housing policy: the idea of ending security of tenure came first in Stephen Greenhalgh’s 2009 pamphlet for the Localis thinktank.
Leaked minutes of a private Localis meeting went much further. This time, Stephen Greenhalgh acted as host to the Conservative housing policy elite: Grant Shapps was in attendance, as was Shaun Bailey, deputy London mayor Kit Malthouse, and a host of Tory council leaders. Details can be found on Andy Slaughter’s website. After agreeing that “the sacred cows need to be shot” and describing council estates as “barracks for the poor”, the attendees discussed a range of planned changes to the fabric of social housing: ending security of tenure in favour of a new model, based on the Assured Shorthold Tenancy; bringing social rents into line with those in the private letting sector (which would mean more than quadrupling them in many parts of London); selling, rather than letting, vacant properties; all with the aim of drastically reducing the quantity of social housing stock in the UK.
The Tory position on housing is thus laid bare. Social housing is a problem for the Tories. Social tenants don’t like the Conservatives, as their anti-Tory voting record makes plain; and the Tories don’t much like them either, since the involvement of the state in providing housing is an assault on their political beliefs. Eroding the security of tenants thus satisfies Tory sensibilities, and throws the prospect of greater electoral success into the bargain.
The opposition that progressives must provide is obvious, but is harder than we imagine. Although tenants are rightly furious that their homes are under assault, they can see for themselves that the estates where they live aren’t perfect – so we must avoid thinking ourselves into a place where we merely advocate the status quo, and convince ourselves that council housing, as it is, is the answer. It isn’t.
David Cameron’s announcement, incorporating as it does the Hammersmith-style rhetoric of “expensive homes for life on the taxpayer”, tries to put forward a myth about social housing that is similar to those the Tories expound on other benefits: that some people live fat on the proceeds of the state, and that they are the enemy of the truly needy. In all of my campaigning work in a borough with lots of large estates, I have found such families extremely difficult to find. Far easier to find are the families in chronic overcrowding and housing need, who require newbuild to house them; pretending that a minority of tenants hoarding housing are the problem is a disingenuous smokescreen for the Tories, who control councils across Britain which have overtly failed to provide new properties to ease overcrowding.
The Tories have the beginnings of a point when they say that a number of social housing tenants aspire to home ownership; but clearly the path to achieving this ought not to mean removing the security of the rented homes they currently have. I aspire to own a better car, for example, but I fail to see how this aspiration would be moved forward by being forced to part with my current motor because the government says it’s keeping me down. We should say so, and put forward progressive alternatives which involve giving tenants an increasing stake in their home so that they can purchase it or move on when they are able, and where the proceeds are put into more newbuild social housing for the many thousands on the waiting lists. Subsidised public housing, with the rent controlled, at least allows them to save income that would otherwise be paying the landlord of an expensive private let: one option would be to place a proportion of social rent collected into an account for the tenant, redeemable if they choose to leave social housing.
Most of all we need to address the core issue of housing, whether social or private, to rent or to buy – lack of supply. Unless we are willing to advocate a comprehensive solution to this, involving not only better options for social tenants but also changes to planning procedures so that newbuild is easier and a better prospect for developers, we may allow the issue of housing to slip into the Tories’ hands.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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