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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.