Margaret Thatcher’s ominous words, “There’s no such thing as society,” were destined to haunt many future generations.
Reeling from two world wars, and the defeat of fascism, ordinary British families, bereaved and broken, damaged yet determined set about rebuilding Britain. The political message of “Never Again” in 1945 1) led to a Socialist Labour government which promised full employment, a tax-funded universal National Health Service, a massive housing programme and the embracing of Keynesian economic policies.
Labour’s cradle-to-grave welfare state, presented with the campaign message ‘Let us face the future’ brought everyone together for common good. 2)
Collectivism was implicit, everyone was valued for their contribution, mutual respect prevailed, society thrived and so did people. Working class people who grew up in the sixties and seventies benefited with opportunities their forefathers never knew.
All this was turned on its head in the eighties. The positive idea of collectivism, the interdependence of people, the power of solidarity, and of trade unionism was crushed.
Thatcher’s esteemed ideas of individuals’ wealth, and her contempt for collective socialism was fed, via the media and Neoliberalism was born. Many believed that this new prosperity could be a reality for them, and bought into the idea of home ownership, and of property investment, believing that this would lead to a greater share in the nation’s wealth.
The Victorian working classes survived against the odds, given their appalling living conditions. Inner city housing for working class families was inferior to farm animals, and this was reflected in the very high mortality rates, and incidence of disease.. The sanitary conditions in Birmingham back-to-backs at the turn of the century are documented here. 3)
Against this background, socialist and Labour groups campaigned for municipal housing. The homes would be owned by the people, were intended put an end to the slums.
Fred Knee secretary of the Workers National Housing Council in the 1890’s said “It is not the housing of the poor, but the housing of the people by the people themselves, that we must work for – not the herding into slums for the benefit of private enterprise, not the crowding into barracks in order to provide interest for municipal bondholders, but by a feasible honest system and plan “
Early struggles for Council Housing…and the opposition to it 1900 to 1945 (John Grayson) 4)
The core principle is that the houses would be decent homes, improving health and living standards for working people. The idea was unpopular with Tory Councils because some saw housing, not as people’s homes, but as a source of income. The idea of collective ownership in any form was seen as a threat.
John Grayson’s document of History of Housing from 1900 until 2007 4) (recommended) recounts the development of the municipal housing, and how Conservative policies deliberately targeted rents, making housing unaffordable leading to social and racial divisions.
Beveridge (Lib) had identified poor housing as one of five great evils, and it was at the forefront of Nye Bevan’s policy with over one million homes being built. However, by 1957 Conservatives had already started to withdraw subsidies, causing municipal rents to treble, and discrimination in private rental market led to racism and division.
In 1968 council housing 31% of tenants were from the poorest 30% of households nationally, 46% from the richest 50% of households. Those attracted to council house living were actually a good cross-section of working class and professional middle class families. Councils by building houses for rent were also able to attract what we now call ‘key workers’ to their areas, and provide ‘labour mobility’ .
Council housing in 1978 at its all time high, nearly a third of housing (32%), but Labour had also encouraged owner occupation (54%). 1978 was a year when there was serious housing choice. Campaigns forced Labour to pass the Homeless Persons Act 1977, and the Race Relations Act in 1976, which brought in many tenants who had been excluded. In 1979 councils were still housing in rented accommodation 20% of the richest tenth of the population.
Tipping the Balance of Society
Thirty years ago there was balanced, sustainable council housing alongside owner occupation. Because of the cross section of manual and professional workers, communities were balanced, and necessary skills widespread. Thus the Thatcherite housing policies destroyed the heart of society. They destroyed the cohesion of communities, leading to areas of great deprivation, and poverty.
Before 1979, Conservative policies allowed council tenants to take on their homes in exchange for maintaining them. Thatcher’s polices of Right-to Buy Council homes led many to buy their homes at a discounted price and with rents rising their hands were forced. Thatcher did not permit the housing stock to be replenished, leading to an acute housing shortage and glimpse back in time, to the days of unscrupulous landlords.
Unreasonably high and unaffordable rents need to be subsidised by Housing Benefit because that is the only way people can afford to live in them, despite many working long hours. Shamefully, Tony Blair’s New Labour governments did not address the housing crisis. Neoliberalism, out of control capitalism, hid behind the illusion of an ever-growing housing bubble.
People were led to believe that a society based on escalating property prices and neoliberalism could thrive. Meanwhile manufacturing industry closed down with the business emphasis on finance, mortgages and insurance. Blindly, many took on debts they could not afford. House prices rose uncontrollably and we witnessed the greed of buy-to-let mortgages which put the prospect of any home out of reach of young people. It is an impossibility for such a system to continue indefinitely, and a crash was inevitable.
Now the Bubble has burst, haemorrhaging its wealth to bankers and corporations.
To Neo-liberalism we say, “Never Again”. And, once Whitehall is rid of this destructive Coaltion government, and we look to build our communities again, we need to be aware of dangers and , banish those myths.
Myth 1.”Buying a home is an investment, as house prices increase – “. There is no guarantee that house prices will rise – in fact this approach is basically gambling, and who would gamble with their home?
Myth 2. “Rising house-prices is a good thing.” House price rises just mean other people are less likely to be able to obtain a home, leading to homelessness.
Myth 3. “People claim Housing Benefit so they don’t need to work.” Most claimants are at work, high rent prices effectively mean the only one to benefit is the landlord. Without benefits, working people could simply not survive.
Myth 3: “Buying a house saves money – renting costs more in the long run.” Buying a home costs much more than the cost to build, interest rates always benefit the banks and financiers. Rents are kept artificially high.
Myth 4: ” In a recession the government cannot afford to build homes”. The government can produce its own money for building, providing jobs, and boosting the economy, frankly the government can not afford not to build.
Myth 5: “Young people can stay at home with parents.” Many have no parents, their parents may have no homes, or no space. Undue pressure and overcrowding will have a detrimental effect on family relationships.
Myth 6: “People don’t deserve a subsidised home, I worked hard for mine.” Everyone deserves a decent home, and a job, enabling them to participate in society for mutual benefit.”
In history, the working class at war faced awful conditions, fodder for trenches and factories alike. For the last thirty years many live lives devoid of dignity or respect while the very rich, look away without a care, merely concerned with their own profits.
Homes for the Future
The People’s Recovery
Miliband’s One Nation should be aiming for full employment for everyone who can work, and allow all to participate as fully as is possible, to enjoy a decent home, and reasonable life-work balance, without debt, or impacting negatively on the future finances and environment of our grandchildren. Why, in a world where there is adequate resources for all, are people living without homes? Why are homes left empty? Where is the justice in a world where some have many homes, and others none at all?
James Murray 5) and the Think-Tank CLASS (Campaign for Labour and Social Studies ) have recently published “Time to Step-in”, and call for government intervention in Housing policy and and investment in publicly funded social housing initiatives. It is the responsibility of government to determine where homes are built, and the type of homes.
Murray’s emphasis of the need not to rely of the profit driven markets to deliver housing is exemplified in that the Coalition government are considering reviewing energy and disability regulations 6) in order to boost a building boom.
The Government are planning to cut fire safety and wheelchair regulations (6) in attempts to give the construction industry an economic boost.
Ministers have ordered an across the board review, to examine whether regulations, across energy, water, security, accessibility and whether builders should be given the option of self- regulation, should be introduced to cut costs for the industry.
This coincides with the governments relaxation on home building, as only last month David Cameron announced a ‘free for all’, allowing home owners to be able to extend their houses by up to 8 metres without planning permission from the local council.
Plans to give the construction industry a boost come from the latest shocking figures that house building is at its lowest since the 1920’s, resulting in rent costs at an all time high, and potentially blocking a whole generation out of the property ladder.
It is unacceptable for housing initiatives to be merely driven by profit, and almost inconceivable that such risks to safety are contemplated.
Homes must be secure, safe and affordable, but also need to be built in areas where there is suitable employment, and where people want to live. Homes built in Ghost Estates in Ireland lie empty, never occupied. Simply pursuing policies of a profit-driven society, without consideration of employment, education and training needs, eventually lead to the social divisions we see today. This can result in a persistence of poverty in some urban areas, despite restructuring communities as revealed in the study, Why Neighbourhoods remain poor.( 7)
- Economic restructuring, particularly the decline of the manufacturing sector in Birmingham, plays an important role in explaining this.
- The loss of these jobs has disproportionately affected already deprived areas.
- Birmingham is becoming a low-wage economy. Since 2001, wages have fallen in real terms and at a faster rate amongst the lower-paid.
- Internal migration within the city has also tended to concentrate less advantaged people within already deprived areas largely due to the cost, tenure and availability of housing.
- The availability of affordable housing – either social rented or cheap private housing – in particular areas mean that those with least choice tend to move to those places.Looking forward we must be ready for the Conservatives who will attempt to block every initiative for common ownership, and policies aimed at redistribution of wealth. We all need homes, decent ones, as we need food water, and energy, and this is why a Housing Policy must always put need before profit.
Declining Construction Industry
Recent reports (BBC) 18) show UK construction industry falling, and as we approach winter further falls can be anticipated putting many out of work and on benefits.
UK construction activity fell 13.1% in September from a year ago, as the sector’s downturn steepened:
ONS Construction Industry Q3: 2012 19)
The month saw further big drops in new building by the commercial and public sectors (excluding infrastructure projects), both of which were down by a fifth from a year ago.
House building saw a 5% bounce in the month but remains 12% below a year ago.
The government’s policy of deep cuts during a recessions is more disaster politics. A massive building initiative of public building, providing jobs worked in 1945 and will work again.
We must be mindful of corruption and insist on transparency about construction companies and ensure that they publicise any self interest and detail their finances and tax contributions. Never again should we allow public assets to be stripped away for personal profit. Here, Sir John Banham is advocating the use of pensions funds for Local Authority workers 8) to fund housing.
(8) The Telegraph reports on a year-long study by the Future Homes Commission, which is chaired by City grandee Sir John Banham, proposes that money from local authorities’ pension funds should be used to create a £10 billion Local Housing Development Fund, which would build mixed-tenure housing in communities suffering from a shortage.
With the courage reminiscent of the socialist Labour Party of 65 years ago, with innovative design, planning and, and a commitment to improve living standards and people’s well-being, we can finally turn our back on the damage inflicted by Margaret Thatcher.
Homes for the Future
The document Homes for the Future, more affordable sustainable (9) 2007, foreword by Yvette Cooper outlines detailed plans for communities and plans for building expansion not seen for forty years. A future Labour government must be prepared to make funds available for the investment our communities need, this time not for the benefit of private enterprise, but for people, because it is they who matter, and it is they who are the source of wealth and mutual benefit regardless of contradictions of Conservative propaganda.
Land left, unused yet fit for building should be made available for building, not left waiting to turn a profit. Investment should be made to modernise old housing stock, by retrofitting modern insulation, and fitting renewable energy micro-generation, for example solar panels.
We should invest in new-builds; well-designed homes, effectively insulated by modern building materials, truly sustainable homes powered by renewable energy and if these are to be collectively owned it would provide a win-win situation. Planning should encompass existing communities, equipped with the facilities residents need, and of a sustainable design. Such communities will be infinitely more suitable than building dense housing devoid of any infrastructure in order to maximise profits.
Rather than “investment” in homes, and a mortgage which feeds hidden bank accounts in tax havens around the world, this would be a real investment in the future and for which our grandchildren will thank us. The result would be a better, happier life for everyone.
References and Further Reading
4. GraysonHistory-Housing: pdf document John Grayson
5. CLASS: Think Piece Time to step in http://classonline.org.uk/pubs/item/time-to-step-in Time_to_step_in-James_Murray Download:
7. Why Neighbourhoods Remain Poor pdf document: Barrow Cadbury Trust: Deprivation, Place and People in Birmingham
8. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/9633580/Use-pension-funds-to-boost-housing-report-says.html Use pension funds to boost housing.
14. Homelessness kills – Executive Summary An analysis of the mortality of homeless people
Update: Stop press:
18: ONS Figures for Construction Industry Q 3 2012 (pdf) 9th November 2012