Another U-turn is possible. Demand large-scale council house building now

Martin Wicks

Hopes of a radical change in national housing policy appeared to be dashed by the election of the Conservative government last year. However, the current crisis precipitated by the pandemic has opened up possibilities that would have seemed unfeasible just a few months ago. The government has had to abandon its free market orthodoxy and take state action that it would not have contemplated before coronavirus.

At the general election, the Conservatives said Labour’s £98bn spending programme would bankrupt the country. This figure now looks like small change in comparison to what this government has spent. Former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once spoke of the “opposition of events” that force a government’s hand. Such was the pandemic, which forced this government to do things that it would have denounced as madness before. And it has been forced into a series of U-turns; it was even possible for a 22-year-old footballer to sufficiently embarrass the government to execute an about-turn in relation to summer holiday school meals.

As the old maxim has it: strike while the iron is hot. This is surely the time to press the government to make a U-turn on the question of funding council and ‘social’ housing. This is a time for audacity rather than timidity. There is a growing consensus, despite difference of emphases, on the need for a big building programme of social rent housing. The parliamentary housing communities and local government select (HCLG) committee said: “A social housebuilding programme should be top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of Covid-19.”

Even the Tories in the Local Government Association have said: “Housing must be a central part of the national recovery from coronavirus. Now is the time for a genuine renaissance in council housebuilding that reduces homelessness, gets rough sleepers off the streets for good, supports people’s well-being and is climate friendly.” The HCLG committee was right when it said that this cannot happen without a significant increase in government grant. It was disappointing therefore that the only reference in Keir Starmer’s speech on housing associated “fixing the housing crisis” with enabling young people to buy a home.

Labour committed at its conference last year and in the 2019 manifesto to:

  • build 155,000 social rent homes a year;
  • including at least 100,000 council homes funded by £10bn grant annually;
  • and end Right to Buy rather than just suspending it.

The voting on the composite resolution was unanimous. The opinion of the membership is clear.

The housing crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and will be worsened by the end of the Covid moratorium on evictions. Local authorities do not have the resources to manage a large increase in homeless families since the government abandoned the old system of paying for each household in temporary accommodation and imposed a fixed sum for each council. There is no way that the crisis can be resolved without a large-scale council house building programme and an end to the haemorrhaging of stock through Right to Buy. ‘Generation rent’ needs decent, secure and affordable homes to rent – and the best means of delivering that is through council housing. One of the consequences of large-scale council house building would be that hundreds of thousands of people would no longer be forced into the market. It is therefore likely that market prices would come down as a result, for those who want to buy, making homes more affordable.

The Labour Campaign for Council Housing is calling on Labour to mobilise a campaign that can bring together organisations, including the growing tenant movement, to demand the government funds a large-scale council house building programme. The campaign is calling on MPs, constituency parties, trades unions and tenant organisations to lobby the leadership to campaign along these lines. The pandemic has highlighted the scale of the housing crisis. We cannot wait for the next general election. Labour can show those forced into the private sector that it is prepared to struggle with them for their interests. The crisis affords an opportunity to push the government into another U-turn.

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