Council Housing: Stop the sell -off

TORY AND New Labour housing policy has been catastrophic for social housing and for millions of working-class households living in sub-standard or overcrowded accommodation. Since 1981 two million council homes have been lost and only half a million housing association homes have replaced them.
A massive programme of house building, involving the regeneration of city centres is needed. New Labour shows every sign of doing precisely the opposite says JARED WOOD.

THE PROVISION of council housing after the second world war was one of the welfare state’s greatest achievements. Millions of working-class households escaped over-priced slums in the private sector.

True, the standard of council housing was varied and many ill-conceived ‘concrete jungles’ were created. Nevertheless, the development of council housing achieved huge steps forward in reducing overcrowding and sub- standard accommodation.

Housing has a major impact on health and a proven link to educational achievement. Yet government policy has switched to eradicating council housing and returning to private sector provision.

This new emphasis on privatised housing is generally seen through the policy of council tenants’ “right to buy”. But this is only one part of UK housing policy; governments focus on it, seeing it as a vote-winner. The wider crisis in social housing brought about by successive Tory and New Labour governments would not win many votes at all.

‘RIGHT TO buy’ was a flagship policy of the Thatcher governments. For tenants it seemed like a bet they couldn’t lose. They could buy their homes from the local council at a huge discount to the market value. Many households, especially in London and the South-east made well over £20,000 overnight.

But their gain was used as a smokescreen to hide a collective loss. Receipts from council house sales were ‘ring-fenced’ by central government, ie none of the cash received was put back into social housing.

In fact, government spending on housing actually fell sharply despite the billions coming in from right to buy. In the 1970s the government spent an average of £10.2 billion a year on housing. During the 1990s that had fallen to only £7.2 billion (1998 prices).

Right to buy also had a profound effect on council housing, making it more marginalised, less desirable. In some cases it transformed working-class communities into sink estates where vulnerable households are put as a last resort.

Studies by government, charities and academics have all associated right to buy with increased social segregation. More desirable council houses are sold off, resulting in geographical concentrations of low-income households. By 1996 over 60% of local authority tenants were receiving means tested benefits.

The right-wing social policy agenda of Blair and the Tories before him typecasts these households as feckless, lazy or part of an ‘underclass’. Many council estates are stigmatised in this way; their residents are assumed to be failures before they even start school.

Under such circumstances the best efforts of many households cannot hold back a tide of hopelessness that, together with the daily struggle to survive on inadequate benefits, stunts educational achievement, damages job prospects and contributes to rising crime.

The Honor Oak estate in Brockley, south London displays many of these characteristics (see box).

THE CONSEQUENCES of creating concentrated pockets of low-income households in poor quality housing are well-documented. New Labour’s Commission on social justice also pointed the finger at ‘social exclusion’, identifying inadequate, marginalised housing as a primary cause.

Despite this evidence the government does worse than nothing: In fact Blair’s New Labour attacks those who are suffering, single parents, people without work and especially anyone on long-term sickness or disability benefit.

On the Honor Oak estate Julie Gilfillan and other tenant activists are campaigning to open an Information Point, a “drop-in’ centre to provide support for people with mental health problems and other difficulties thrown at them by everyday life. The politicians have abandoned them but they’re fighting back.

Supported by their Socialist Party councillor, Honor Oak tenants have mounted an assault on Lewisham council. Their efforts have paid off. £12 million has now been put aside for repairs and renovations on the estate.

Julie and councillor Ian Page are quick to point out that this will only begin to make Honor Oak habitable. It won’t address the wider crisis of social housing in Britain. In fact it will do nothing to help other Lewisham council tenants either, for them the council’s housing strategy is wholesale privatisation.

This is made possible by The Housing Act of 1988 that took Thatcher’s right to buy policy even further. Not content with selling off council homes individually, the act encouraged local authorities to sell off their stock in bulk to commercial landlords and housing associations.

Once transferred out of council control, tenants lose their secured tenancy agreements for less protected ‘assured’ tenancies. Nationally, housing association rents are on average £10 a week more than council rents.

Lewisham council has already tried to convince 6,000 council households to transfer to Hillgreen Homes, a company set up to manage the sale of whole swathes of south-east London.

The council’s £750,000 PR campaign, with every house receiving a promotional video, was opposed by councillor Page and ‘Save Lewisham Housing’: The tenants voted to reject the transfer and remain as council tenants.

However, the New Labour regime, showing a far more passionate commitment to privatisation than local democracy, is coming back again with new proposals to sell off its tenants.

Mass sales of council stock will become the order of the day if the government and its acolytes in local government get their way.

LABOUR’S ONLY housing legislation to date is the 1996 Housing Act. Introduced after a hysterical campaign against noisy and nuisance neighbours, it has actually primarily been used to exclude those with the greatest financial problems from social housing altogether.

36% of all eviction orders under the act are against tenants in rent arrears, more evictions than for any other category of problem tenant. Overall, evictions from social housing increased by a staggering 365% in three years: New Labour – New Homelessness!

British housing policy aims to provide an opportunity to make profit out of social housing again. Capitalists resent the public sector – it’s funded out of taxation and also denies them the chance to make big bucks out of our basic needs.

But the private sector has proved incapable of providing affordable housing for those on lower or average incomes. In 1979, 210,000 new homes were completed. By 1999 it was down to 140,000.

Speculative homebuilders concentrate on executive estates for those who can pay, rather than affordable housing for those in need. Housing, like health and education, is an absolutely essential requirement. Workers and the labour movement have bitterly resisted privatisation of education and the NHS. We must also resist the privatisation of housing.

The right to decent, affordable housing was a key demand of the British labour movement early in the 20th century. As the experience in Honor Oak shows, there are many working-class people who can’t wait any longer.

Honor Oak is fighting back

ALMOST EVERY block on the Honor Oak estate, an inter-war development of tenement houses, is in serious disrepair. Damp is rife and many children suffer from bronchial conditions like asthma.

Tenants wait forever to receive basic repairs. There is also a chronic lack of community facilities on Honor Oak. Most of its shops have closed down together with the local pub, adding to its segregation from the increasingly affluent streets that it borders.

Honor Oak could conform to the stereotyped ghetto of the underclass, except that the community is fighting back. Last year Ian Page was elected councillor for the area.

Ian is the first Socialist Party candidate to be elected in London, following the party’s successes in Coventry and Scotland. Apart from a political programme that includes nationalisation of big business to pay for investment in housing, welfare and industry, Ian’s campaign was marked out by involving many tenants’ activists from the estate.

One activist, JULIE GILFILLAN, says: “Depression is rife. A few weeks ago a young woman, living alone with a new baby threw the child from the top-floor balcony and threw herself after it. Somehow they both survived.

“The baby’s now in care and the young woman’s on crutches. The council have refused to rehouse her and she’s been discharged from hospital to the same flat where she’s expected to climb four flights of stairs to her front door.”

There are widespread mental health problems on the estate but Julie believes many sufferers are not “ill” just desperate in the face of an intolerable situation.

“Kids see their parents going without. Not just those on benefit either. Many parents, including lone parents, work hard but they struggle all the same. The only way the kids think they can ever earn big dollars is through crime.”

Tenants who can break out of this trend and find stable, well-paid employment tend to move out, taking their ambition and optimism with them.

Weston Estate: No to Privatisation

TENANTS AND residents of Weston estate in Southampton have stepped up their campaign to stop the council selling off two tower blocks and transferring another to a housing association.

Tim Cutter

The newly formed Weston Independent Tenants and Residents Association (WRITA) now has hundreds of members and is continuing to grow.

The New Labour dominated council is trying to discredit WRITA and has set up a tiny official Tenants Association made up of council ‘Yes-people’. But an independent voice for local people has gained massive support.

One morning, myself and another WRITA member signed up over 100 people outside the local shops. The tower blocks aren’t the only issue causing anger.

We’ve been promised money from the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) buf even if the bid succeeds, many people feel they’ll have no real influence on how the money is spent. Their fears were confirmed when council officers proposed the make-up of the SRB panel which would decide which projects would be funded.

The council’s proposed make-up is 50% community reps and 50% “interested agencies” who are mainly unelected business people. This would mean that the community’s democratic wishes would be unlikely to gain a majority on the panel.

Like many other working-class areas, Weston desperately needs resources. But only a campaign by the community and working-class people’s determination can prevent the privatisation of housing and high rents that many housing association tenants face.

A lasting solution would need a socialist housing programme for the whole country so that we can finally end the scourge of homelessness and deprivation.

The Socialist Party Says:

· No council housing sell-offs: Build campaigns linking tenants and the trades unions to oppose housing privatisation
· For a massive programme of public investment into good quality, affordable homes
· Nationalise the banks, finance and construction companies in order to cancel interest payments from councils (some pay out up to half their housing budgets in interest) and use the money for housing as part of a socialist plan under working-class control and management
· An immediate rent freeze
· All tenancies to be “secure”.
· Involvement of tenants in planning and running of estates, to ensure social housing meets their needs