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.

 
 
 
 

Will Ethiopia’s controversial new dam repeat the “world’s worst environmental disaster”?

The offending dam. Image: Mimi Abebayehu/Wikimedia Commons.

Encompassing swathes of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, the Omo-Turkana Basin is one of the oldest landscapes in the world that is known to have been inhabited by Homo sapiens and is now one of the world’s most extraordinary examples of ethnic diversity. In the lower Omo Valley alone, a varied history of cross-cultural encounters has played out to produce eight distinct ethnic groups, speaking many languages from Afro-Asiatic to Nilo-Saharan.

In a cattle camp on the bank of the ancient Omo River a Mursi elder implored me to, “Tell our story so that others might know us before we are all dead in the desert”. Where the river ends in Lake Turkana, this sentiment was echoed by local fishermen: “You will find our bones in the desert.” The story of the Omo-Turkana Basin is now that of the Ethiopian state exploiting its periphery in the name of “development”, trampling on the human rights of its citizens in the process.

The dam and the damned

Over the past decade, the Ethiopian government has pushed ahead with a huge hydro-electric dam on the Omo, known as Gibe III. Without any meaningful consultation with the communities affected, the state has also appropriated grazing lands and freshwater, threatening their vital resources and local heritage.

All of this has happened despite the area gaining the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. As Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician put it, “these happenings are profoundly disturbing”.

The completion of Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam to date, has eliminated the annual flood and radically reduced the Omo’s flow, which produces 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s freshwater input. In doing so, it has reduced sediments and nutrients critical for traditional agriculture, riverside pastures and fish habitat.

The former lake bed. What remains of the Aral Sea is heavily polluted. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Over 30 per cent of the lake inflow will be diverted for commercial irrigation projects. The result could be a fall in lake level comparable to that of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has shrunk by over two thirds since the 1960s because of irrigation abstractions, and which has been called “the world’s worst environmental disaster”. To make way for the commercial plantations planned for the Omo Valley, tens of thousands of hectares of land will be expropriated and thousands of local people displaced.

Development at any cost

The need to see “development” as more than a simple matter of an increase in GDP is well established. In his seminal work, Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, demonstrated that sustainable development must be based on universal access to social and economic necessities as well as political and civil rights. The many communities in the Omo-Turkana Basin have suffered a systematic curtailment of their most basic and essential rights.

International agreements which the Ethiopian government signed up to, such as the 1993 International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require it to protect and promote the rights of minority cultures and ensure the “right of everyone to take part in cultural life”.

Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has reduced to around 10 per cent of its size in the 1960s. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Since 1948, Ethiopia has also been signed up to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II provides against the destruction of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”, famously defined the specific need to protect against the “disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups”.

It is difficult not to conclude that what we are seeing in the Omo is the wholesale disregard of these commitments by the Ethiopian government. Its development policies are not only transforming landscape and heritage but destroying complex systems of sustainable living that have endured for millennia. The huge injustice of all this is that the ecological costs will be borne by local communities while the profits will be enjoyed by central and international corporations.

Meanwhile, centuries of collective wisdom relating to livestock diversification, flood dependant cultivation and customary obligations and mechanisms of livestock exchange, will be made redundant.

This is not to deny, of course, that development, in the sense defined by Sen, is a laudable and necessary enterprise. But we must also recognise that large-scale infrastructure projects are likely to have far reaching consequences for the lifestyles and cultural identities of those they displace.


Projects which set out to increase economic growth without regard for social justice and individual rights are not worthy of the name “development”. Development must benefit locals, and for this to happen their voices must not only be heard but also given a central and determining role in any discussions about the future of their lands and livelihoods.

Both cradle and crucible of our species, the Omo-Turkana Basin is unique and precious. Its heritage and history, as well as responsibility for its future, are shared by us all.The Conversation

Timothy Clack, Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.