THERE’S A HOUSING POLICY BATTLE going on inside the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has made a clear commitment to council housing, but others are continuing the doublespeak of the Blair/Brown years. Vague noises about ‘affordable’ housing lack credibility. They also conceal an ideology that’s essentially pro-business.
When Labour politicians, including the shadow housing minister, talk about social housing they mean continuing with the failed private developer-friendly agenda that underlies the housing crisis. They also maintain a slavish, uncritical view of housing associations which can no longer be regarded as ‘social’ landlords. But there’s a wider debate to be had about the place of housing in our society.
Decades of allowing policy to be dictated by the market have distorted how we relate to our shared need for a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home. The obsession with home ownership has warped government spending on housing to the point where at least £20 is spent on boosting the private market for every pound we spend on non-market alternatives. Ever since Thatcher’s right to buy (RTB), few politicians have had the courage to challenge the deification of the mortgage.
We need to reject the link between social status and housing tenure. It’s often argued, with some justification, that in other countries renting isn’t seen as tantamount to second class citizenship, as it often is in the UK. This stigmatisation was a crucial weapon in the relentless campaign to privatise council housing which saw the sector shrink by two-thirds in four decades, to the detriment not just of council tenants, but society as a whole.
Restoring council housing to the mainstream will require re-winning some arguments, particularly among under-35s who have only seen it in retreat. But they are also the people who could benefit most from a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home - conditions that are foreign to the hyperexploitation of private renting that many young people experience. This is also the ‘Corbyn generation’ though. Arguments for a more rational, sustainable and humane approach to housing can connect with wider arguments for a different kind of society.
Today, the lives of millions of people - particularly, but not only the young - are dominated by the constant struggle to find, pay for and keep a home. The knock-on effects and costs are enormous, damaging health, wealth and relationships, imposing expensive, long commutes, depriving people of the time to live full lives. In a way Engels would instantly recognise, our preoccupation with housing is constricting lives, including our capacity for taking political action - and that’s the way the Tories and bosses like it.
Changing our housing attitudes and practice would have multiple benefits. When we build more genuinely affordable homes and control rents in all sectors, we’ll escape the false economies that currently see us spend £25 billion a year (and rising) on housing benefit. The insecurity and transience endemic to market-driven housing are ruinous of stable, supportive and safe communities.
A secure home lets people plan their lives and get to know their neighbours, avoiding the social isolation that can feed mental ill health. Treating housing as a social asset, rather than a private commodity, will encourage energy efficiency improvements that go beyond the individualism of current policy gimmicks.
The Labour Party should be bold on housing. Tinkering around the edges of the problem won’t work, nor will continuing to expect the private sector to solve the crisis it caused. Linking housing policy to a wider set of reforms in health, education, transport, employment and the environment will resonate with the desperation many feel because the struggle for housing has become so all-consuming.
But we can’t just wait for a Labour government. The Tories are in disarray, but they’ll smash all non-market housing if we let them. We have to fight for it now. If Justice for Grenfell means anything, it’s that working class lives are not destroyed by a system based on housing as a source of private profit. We need to restore the true value of housing as a home.
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)