Labour councils show there is an answer to Britain’s broken housing system

Mike Amesbury
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

I was privileged to attend the virtual opening last month of a modern, high-quality block of apartments in South London… but with a difference. Thanks to Labour-led Southwark Council, working people get to live in these spacious, well-designed flats, complete with panoramic views, because they are available at a social rent they can actually afford.

With just 17 apartments, William Cuffay House in Walworth might seem like a tiny beacon of hope. But it is part of Southwark’s ambitious New Homes Programme to build 11,000 new council homes by 2043, and it’s already on track to deliver or have commenced construction on 2,500 of these by the end of 2022. It represents an alternative, progressive approach compared to that of our beloved Tory government.

The seven-storey block is named after William Cuffay, a leading Chartist who campaigned for political and social reforms to build a better society. Decent, affordable homes, designed to be car-free in line with the green agenda, are a fitting tribute to him and the council’s response to these challenging times.

The UK Housing Review 2021 recently highlighted a shocking fall in the supply of such social rented homes – a 210,000 drop between 2012 and 2020. The government’s market-centric approach excludes so many where home ownership is not a viable and affordable choice.

On top of that, their policies are set to usher in a new era of slum housing. The conversion of commercial properties into unsuitable flats, without the need for planning consent, is already happening with the widening of permitted development rights.

The Tories’ planning for the future white paper is nothing more than a developers’ charter that will enrich still further the companies that donate to the Conservative Party. It will also exclude residents and councillors from having a meaningful voice in the planning process.

For increasing numbers of people, the only option will be poor-quality, cramped accommodation. This after the pandemic that exposed the health impact of people living too closely together and the tragedy of Grenfell that followed a dilution in building regulations.

As a country, we need to build 300,000 homes a year, but this government is only building around 6,500 homes for social rent, which is barely scratching the surface of what we need. We haven’t built enough homes in a long time and so with every government that doesn’t meet its target, the problem gets worse. Good quality housing becomes more out of reach for everyday people or, worse still, they end up homeless.

But Southwark Council – backed by the political will and resources of London mayor Sadiq Khan – shows there is an answer to Britain’s broken housing system. An approach that puts people before profit. It follows in the tradition of the 1945 Labour government that built hundreds of thousands of homes and transformed people’s lives; lifting them out of overcrowded slums and putting them into comfortable homes with indoor toilets and gardens.

Closer to home for me, as a working-class lad from Manchester, Salford City Council has built 129 high quality council homes available for social rent to people already on the housing waiting list. This work should also be applauded as decent homes, available at a price that is affordable, will make a huge difference to people’s lives.

The frustration is that councils could build so many more homes if only they had better access to investment and land. Tory politicians may claim to be the friends of working people but their actions suggest otherwise.

As the shadow minister for housing and planning, previously a city councillor and a former trustee of a housing association, I want to see a greater commitment to social housing as we build forward to a better, fairer and greener nation. Salford City Council in the North and Southwark Council in the South have shown the way.

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