Green paper falls short on council housing

The Housing Green Paper published today falls a long way short of meeting the expectations of supporters of council housing and the five tests agreed at the Defend Council Housing conference on July 12 (see DCH policy statement). In the face of pressure from a formidable alliance of council tenants, trade unions, councillors and MPs government is still trying to wriggle to avoid conceding the ‘Fourth Option’ of direct investment in decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing.

The government’s core strategy for providing new homes relies on the private sector (including Registered Social Landlords). The private sector has failed up to now to provide the homes we need and there is no indication they will do any better in the future.

Alan Walter, Defend Council Housing chair, said after listening to Yvette Cooper speaking to the Green Paper in Parliament:

“The fact is that direct investment in decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing is the cheapest and quickest way to address housing need today. The private sector alternatives cost more – eating up a higher than ever level of households income, are less secure and are totally unaccountable. That’s why so many people value a council tenancy over the alternatives”

“Despite all the hype about home ownership demand for council housing is high. Instead of goading local authorities into public private partnerships the government should listen to the people and enable local authorities to improve existing and build new council homes themselves.”

“We need investment to provide first class council housing – not councils providing public land to subsidise home ownership to satisfy government’s dogmatic obsessions.”

“Improve existing and build new first class council homes and then local authorities would be able open up their allocation policies once again turning council estates back into the mixed communities they used to be”

Pressures from supporters of council housing have got Ministers to address some of the key issues we have raised. The Green Paper discusses reforms to council Housing Revenue Accounts allowing councils to retain all the income from tenants’ rents and capital receipts and formally talks about allowing councils to build new council homes. But, at first reading, this seems to be largely limited to pilot schemes and councils setting up a ‘local authority company’ which are unacceptable restrictions.

The Green Paper does show that Ministers no longer believe they can hold the dogmatic line they have been defending up to now. Supporters of council housing will take advantage of the discussion around the Green Paper to convince Ministers that demonstrable support for investment in council housing and real choice for council tenants means that government has to provide the ‘Fourth Option’ of direct investment in council housing “as a matter of urgency”.

Gordon Brown, in his statement to Parliament on July 11, referred back to the last two major house building programmes in the ‘inter war years’ and after the 1950s. On both occasions there was a cross party consensus that providing homes for the people couldn’t be left to the private sector. All our experience suggests that the same logic should apply today.

Years of disinvestment in council housing has left many estates in urgent need of improvements and the shortage of council housing has led to local authorities restricting access to council homes to only those in most desperate need. Alongside problems directly associated with cheap design and building methods on some estates constructed in the 60s and 70s has created a range of financial and social issues.

But carrying out improvements and expanding the number of council homes available would allow councils to once again offer tenancies to the wide range of people on council housing waiting lists creating the ‘mixed communities’ government says it wants without requiring people to take on the financial burden of a mortgage beyond their means.

It is positive that government has recognised its responsibility to provide a lasting solution to the housing crisis. But the Green Paper mistakenly places the major responsibility on the private sector (including Registered Social Landlords). They have failed to provide up to now the homes that millions of people need – there is no reason to believe that they will do it now. They are sitting on land banks, surpluses (derived from public subsidies in the case of Registered Social Landlords) and in some cases planning permission but still don’t deliver!

The housing that the private sector does provide is more expensive (taking up an ever increasing proportion of household income) and less secure that council housing and they are also totally unaccountable. Through a process of mergers and takeovers the Registered Social Landlord sector is now dominated by multi million pound companies operating across dozens of local authority boundaries. Some are already lobbying for the right to float on the stock market.

Together this makes the argument for investment in ‘decent, affordable, secure and accountable’ council housing overwhelming.

Local authorities are ideally placed to improve and build new council housing themselves to provide decent, affordable, secure and accountable homes. They should not be required to gift or sell off on the cheep valuable public land to subsidise developments that will be dominated by private housing.

1.6 million households on council housing waiting lists demonstrates strong demand for first class public housing and many local authorities want to get on with the job of improving existing and building new council homes.

Nearly 3 million existing council tenants along with 1.63 million households on council housing waiting lists want the ‘Fourth Option’ of direct investment to improve existing, build new and maintain all council housing as first class housing.

Our campaign is backed up by the TUC, most trade unions and significant numbers of MPs and councillors from all parties.

The alliance of tenants, trade unions, councillors and MPs will be stepping up our campaign over the summer to ‘persuade’ government to implement the ‘Fourth Option’. The issue is expected to be a key debate at the TUC with most unions now affiliated to the campaign. The last three Labour Party conferences have backed the ‘Fourth Option’ (see Composite 10, 2006 Labour Party conference) and it is likely to be back on the agenda at Gordon Brown’s first conference as Prime Minister.Further information

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