As we celebrate 100 years of social housing, councils deserve more money and freedom

Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan look at some flats. Image: Getty.

London’s Labour deputy mayor for housing writes.

Seven years ago, I met families moving into some of the first new council homes Islington had built in a generation. I was the council’s new cabinet member for housing and the homes were on the same road as the constituency office of local MP Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy joined me and the local councillors on the visit – all of us excited the council was building housing again.

Last year we had good reason to be excited across London. Councils began building more new council homes than they have for over three decades. They did so with the support of the first-ever City Hall programme dedicated to council homebuilding, and following local elections at which council housing had been front-and-centre in manifestos across the capital.

This is a real success – but we need to go much, much further. Although we started building nearly 2,000 council homes last year, that is just a tenth of the level that council homebuilding reached in London in its heyday four decades ago. To truly build all the council homes we need, we need far greater investment and powers from the government.

The government will no doubt say they have already helped councils by last year removing the extra borrowing limits on housing departments. This change was certainly welcome, but it was well overdue. It is a change that I and countless others have long fought for, and it is only the very first step in what councils need.

So, what else do councils need? First, they need more money from the government. There’s no getting around this. City Hall’s council homebuilding programme is giving councils £1bn of investment over four years. But recent analysis we produced with councils and housing associations showed that London needs around five times that amount for affordable housing every single year.

Second, councils need bigger teams to build homes. Council housing departments have been hollowed out over many years, particularly by the last decade of cuts. At City Hall we set up a £10m “Homebuilding Capacity Fund” to plug at least a small portion of this gap. This fund was hugely oversubscribed, showing how hungry councils are to expand their homebuilding abilities – they just need the resources to do so.


And third, councils need powers to buy land for housing. At present, councils are building almost entirely on land they already own. To build on a much greater scale over the years to come, they need to be able to build on many more sites. We need a government which will overhaul the rules on how land can be valued and bought – so that councils can get their hands on more land, more quickly, at prices not driven by speculation.

These three steps should form the foundation of a radical package of support for council homebuilding – a package that should also suspend the Right to Buy. It simply cannot be right that investors who have bought former council homes off their original owners are now, in many cases, letting out homes privately to tenants who need housing benefit to cover the high cost of market rents.

It is also crucial that this package strengthens the voice of social housing residents. Ballots should be made mandatory on all plans for estate regeneration – building on our decision to make them a requirement for City Hall funding. Beyond that, the government should work with tenants to design reforms that overhaul the ombudsman and regulator, making them far easier to access, and making the latter far more focused on resident concerns than “economic standards” as is currently the case.

A radical package to help councils build is what we need as we celebrate 100 years of council housing. The Housing Act 1919 – also known as the Addison Act – introduced council homebuilding on a large scale and paved the way for the growth of council housing over much of the 20th century.

After council homebuilding was devastated in the 1980s, councils are now paving the way for its future. We need a government that is as excited about new council housing as Jeremy and I were on that day seven years ago, and that will empower councils to go as far as possible.

As council housing enters its second century, we should fight to make sure it is at the heart of fixing the housing crisis, and at the heart of the London we want to build.

James Murray is London’s deputy mayor for housing and a member of the Labour party. This article previously appeared on our sister site the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”