Ten myths about council housing – and one ask

The New Era Estate, Hoxton. Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington on what we get wrong about council housing.

Everyone seems to agree that we have a housing crisis in London and that we need to increase the supply of genuinely affordable homes. And everyone, including the Prime Minister, seems to agree that a big part of this must be building more new council homes.

So the question is, how do we get council homes built in sufficient numbers to start addressing the housing crisis? To begin, we need to correct some widely-held, but inaccurate, views on council housing. Let’s do some myth-busting.

1. Council housing is subsidised

It isn’t. Far from it.

Here in Islington, most council housing blocks were built decades ago and tenants have been paying rent on their properties ever since. Council housing is administered through an account that is separate from all other local authority spending, the Housing Revenue Account, which has to remain solvent.

Council housing pays for itself either through rents or by the building of some new private homes for open market sale. This is what many councils have to do in the absence of government funding.

2. Housing Benefit covers the majority of Council tenants’ rent

It doesn’t. Households who claim housing benefit to help pay their rent live in all kinds of tenures in both the private rented and the social rented sectors.

Between 1995-96 and 2015-16, the UK’s housing benefit bill increased by 51 per cent – with the largest increase being in the private rented sector, which has seen a rise of 57 per cent over the past two decades.

Housing someone in the private rented sector costs an average of £110 per week in housing benefit compared with £89 in social housing, an extra 23 per cent. Far fewer people would be reliant on housing benefit if they were able to access council housing in the first place, and the government’s housing benefit bill would also come right down – freeing up more funds annually to spend on building new council homes.

3. Council rents are too low and most people can afford the Government’s new “affordable” rents

They can’t. “Affordable Rents”, under the government’s Orwellian definition, are set at up to 80 per cent of market rent in any given area. In Islington, this is completely unaffordable for most people. The median rent in Islington is £1733 per month. With the median gross monthly salary in the borough at £2713, many private rents are around two thirds the average income.

4. Councils don’t care about council housing anymore – they spend their time building private housing

We do care – and we get little government support to build.

In Islington this year, we are building more new council homes than at any time in the last 30 years. But we are forced to build some private housing as part of our new developments to help pay for the new council homes. We do not have the funding to do it any other way.

5. Right to Buy is fine because it replaces any homes that are lost

It doesn’t. Under the current rules, local authorities only receive 75 per cent of the proceeds of any property that is sold under Right to Buy. The rest goes to the government.

But government red-tape means that this receipt is only allowed to be used to pay for one third of the build costs of a new council home: we still need to find the other two thirds.

Right to Buy proceeds are also not allowed to be combined with any other grant funding, so many councils are struggling to spend them in the time allowed by government.

6. Yes, but the Government gives out grants for councils to build new homes

This has been cut massively and doesn’t fund the cost of building council homes.

In London, councils can obtain grants of £60k per new council home from the Greater London Authority, but this generally doesn’t cover any more than a third of the build costs of a new home and it cannot be combined with Right to Buy receipts. Government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

7. Then councils should just borrow more to build more

We’d love to, but we can’t. Sadly, councils can’t just borrow to build. The government caps the amount that local authorities can borrow through the Housing Revenue Account.

In our new developments in Islington, the current split between council housing and private housing is around 60:40. If this cap – what we like to call the ‘New Home Blocker’ – was lifted, we could make it 85:15, immediately converting hundreds more new private homes into council homes.

8. Why not just borrow to build homes outside of the Housing Revenue Account then?

We can’t.

Non-housing spending is administered through a local authority’s General Fund. But in an absurd quirk of the rules, councils would be permitted to borrow to invest in commercial property anywhere in the country through this fund, but not to invest to build self-financing council homes for local people that would reduce the housing benefit bill.

9. Councils should rebuild existing estates and use a more efficient design, creating new council homes for the existing residents and more council homes for new residents

Sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? In Islington we’re building new council homes out of old garages, on unused parts of estates, and on top of existing council blocks.

However, unlike new council homes, there is no grant funding available for replacing existing council homes. The bottom line for Islington is that any project must create more council homes than we had before – otherwise, why do it? So larger scale rebuild projects are impossible for us under the current rules.


10. The problem is the bureaucracy of the planning system

Ah, that old chestnut. Conservative peer and Chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, has said that, “The truth is that councils are currently approving nine in ten planning applications, which shows that the planning system is working well and is not a barrier to building.”

The noble lord is also refreshingly succinct when it comes to how we can get more homes built. “The last time the country delivered 300,000 homes which this country needs each year, in the 1970s, councils were responsible for more than 40 per cent of them and it’s essential that we get back to that. In order for that to happen, councils have to be able to borrow to build homes again.”

So I have one ask of the Government: cut the ‘red tape’ around building new council homes

Scraping the New Home Blocker would immediately allow us to build hundreds of new council homes in Islington alone, and would free other councils across the country to do the same.  

Ending the restrictions on the use of Right to Buy receipts and grants would also help councils to build more new council homes.

There is no lack of political will in local authorities to build council homes – but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.