In 1970 local councils built almost half of all new homes. The Right-to-Buy and local government finance restrictions introduced by the Thatcher government in the 1980s were a conscious, and largely successful, move by the Tories to get rid of council housing. Multiple levels of separation and deregulation of functions were enforced. Councils were forced to contract out housing management to the lowest bidder.
The Blair New Labour Government elected in 1997 did little to stop this decline in council housing. Not only was there no significant new council house building, but it did not stop the Right-to-Buy scheme, nor remove the restrictions on councils spending receipts from the sales.
Austerity policies since the financial crash in 2008, and under-funding of local government, accelerated cost cutting by councils. But it runs deeper than this. The neoliberalism that underpins austerity has been the guiding economic orthodoxy of all recent governments - until partly broken with in the 2017 Corbyn-led Labour manifesto. Since 1979 successive governments, have pursued policies of selling off council housing and privatising its management and refurbishment.
The judge leading the Grenfell Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has decided not to look into social housing policy. But without an examination of wider social policy, the lessons will not be exposed. We must not let the debate be closed down to the immediate causes of the fire, important as it is for those to be looked into. We must demand an independent parallel inquiry to mount a broad investigation into housing policy and practice.
Grenfell must be a turning point for UK housing policy. We must fundamentally reassess the way in which we house people in this country.
The Tory government offers no prospect of such a sea-change. To begin to address the problem, the Tories must be replaced by a government committed to building public housing.
The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn offers a genuine alternative for the first time for decades. In his ten pledges before the election, Corbyn promised to build 1 million new homes in five years, at least half of them council homes. That would mean 500,000 council homes over 5 years, 100,000 per year.
But when the manifesto emerged the commitment had changed to “By the end of the next Parliament we will be building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale.” Labour Shadow Housing Minister John Healey has said: “The exact proportion of rent/sale and exactly how many homes councils build will depend upon their choices once liberated from the cap on their housing revenue account.”
This is inadequate. In 2012 the Local Government Association estimated that removing the borrowing cap would allow councils to build 80,000 homes over 5 years. That was only 16,000 a year.
As well as building new homes, following Grenfell, all existing council housing must be made safe. This cannot be confined to replacing cladding, but must include retrofitting of sprinklers, sufficient fire escapes, alarms and regular safety inspections. Councils and local council tax payers cannot be left to pay for this. Money must be provided by central government.
Any major council house building programme cannot rely only on what local councils can borrow, or decide to build. It will need planning with clear targets and an injection of government funding in excess of £6 billion a year, far above what Labour currently appears to be offering. Labour should also commit to abolishing - not just suspending - Right-to-Buy and bringing unused land and long-term empty properties into public ownership.
The wastage and profiteering created through deregulation and contracting out of public services, including housing management, need to be reversed and brought under democratic public control. Tenants must have real democratic input into the design, management, refurbishment, and control of their homes.
Building work should not be left to private developers to profit from cost-cutting, and exploitation of building workers. A public building corporation could be established, with unionised workers.
The election of a Corbyn-led Labour Government would be a great step towards dealing with the housing crisis, but as its policies stand not a sufficient one. We need to ensure that public outrage at the Grenfell fire is not dissipated in an inadequate inquiry and half-measures - or used as a reason to clear tower blocks without replacing council housing. We must ensure that it becomes a turning point, and a mass public movement is built to hold government to account, to build enough modern, safe, sustainable public housing for everyone who wants it.