Britain's housing market is broken. A mass council housebuilding project is the perfect solutionby Chaminda Jayanetti / January 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
This week’s landmark cross-party report on council and social housing brought a much-needed injection of reality into a housing debate that has spent decades fixated on homeownership and worthless wheezes designed to create new classes of “affordable” housing that aren’t actually affordable.
The report calls for three million new council and social housing units to be built over the next 20 years, outpacing the mass building programme that followed the second world war. The programme would address urgent housing needs—but would also provide housing for more than a million young people and 700,000 older people stuck in the private rented sector.
The bracing ambition of the report raises an important and oft-overlooked question: who, and what, is council housing for? In its modern denuded state, and at a time of soaring homelessness and hunger, we tend to see it as being just for “the poorest,” like an extension of the benefit system.
The doctor, the butcher, the labourer
It wasn’t always thus. The original vision of the postwar Labour government’s council housebuilding programme was to create socially mixed communities where, in housing minister Nye Bevin’s words, “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the … labourer all lived in the same street.” That was before the doctor, the grocer and the butcher took advantage of Thatcher’s Right to Buy revolution.
But there’s a more pressing argument for extending council housing back to the middle classes: affordability. It ought to be a natural objective of public policy to ensure that housing costs are kept low for the majority of the public. It is not the proper aim of government to ensure high returns to landowners and rentiers. Yet for decades, policy has secured the latter at the expense of the former.
This is because policymakers wrongly assumed that housing works best as a deregulated market. The difficulty with this is that prices will be set at the level that people are willing to pay—and because people needsomewhere to live, they’ll be willing to pay ever more money for it.
Sure enough, this is what has happened: property developers and landlords have been able to push costs ever higher, knowing that people have no choice but to…