Can David Cameron match Harold Macmillan's achievement in house-building?
15 August 2010
Right-to-buy and buy-to-let have created an urgent need for social housing – which the Labour government did not deliver
There re nearly half a million reasons why a new council house building programme is unlikely to get off the ground, despite hints last week that the government would like to relaunch council homes to deal with Britain's growing shortage of social housing.
While a London flat this week went on sale for £140m, every MP in the land faces heart-rending tales of people unable to find a home to live in. Until the last months of the Labour government, Labour was in denial over the growing crisis in social housing. The reason was political terror over challenging the sacred cow of right-to-buy, the most prized legacy of Margaret Thatcher's social engineering experiments of the 1980s.
Since 1997, under a Labour government, 481,530 council homes have been sold off. By contrast, in the region with the greatest social housing need, Yorkshire and the Humber, just 24 council homes have been built in the same period.
The Labour fire-sale of council homes boosted house-price inflation and created a growing industry of renting out privately-bought council homes, often to tenants who disrupted the previously stable community of a settled council estate. Local councillors have lost control of housing allocations and MPs are helpless to allay the human misery as parents get older paying high rents with no chance of getting a council home or saving enough to buy a house.
Housing policy in Britain has not been seriously examined for more than two decades. It should not be a party political issue. Harold Macmillan was named housing minister by Winston Churchill in 1951 and built 300,000 houses – private and council – a year. Macmillan worked with Labour councils. His house-building energy kept the Tories in power for 13 years.
Today Conservative councils are just as keen as Labour local authorities to start building again. But housing policy is now spooked by the right-to-buy. It was a vote-winner for the Tories in the 1980s and Labour was so transfixed by right-to-buy that no Labour politician of the Blair-Brown-Mandelson era ever dared challenge this holy cow.
As chancellor, Gordon Brown prevented councils from using their receipts from right-to-buy to build new homes and Labour's failure to challenge this Thatcherite legacy has landed us in the crisis we have now.
Private landlords who buy to rent do not allow their tenants to purchase the property at knock-down prices. But there is no council in the nation that can start a serious Macmillan-style council housebuilding programme with the right-to-buy legislation in place. The new government is proposing minuscule financial nudges to encourage councils to build, but if a tenant has the right to buy a new council home the stock of affordable rental homes just gets smaller.
No one can be blamed for taking advantage of the offer, though limits should be in place to stop homes removed from social housing stock being rented out by their new private owners.
If David Cameron really was a reformer, he should abolish right-to-buy and start council house building going again. He should also look at planning policy as there is now a culture of out-and-out opposition to any proposals to build new homes on land where people want to live – close to their communities and in houses, not high-rise apartment blocks.
In the past three parliaments, Conservative MPs spent hours opposing any proposed new housing estates in their constituencies. The first act of the new government has been to block the use of private land surrounding existing houses to build new homes.
This is sometimes denounced as "garden-grabbing", but the plain fact is that large areas of land around existing homes may be quite appropriate for small-scale developments. This has now been stopped by the new government, which will make it harder to build new homes.
The other reality to accept is that all the council estates since social housing began as a serious policy 90 years ago have been built on farm, green, or local land whose soil is not contaminated by industrial effluent. Yet in the past few years any proposal to build on such land has met with ferocious local opposition. As a result, the present generation of homeowners are destroying any chances for our children and grandchildren to join the housing ladder.
This is the most selfish generation of homeowners in British history. Until we confront our own selfishness, there will continue to be huge housing shortages, especially for young and less-affluent citizens.
Taking on selfishness, the Thatcherite shibboleth of right-to-buy, and the green lobby is a mammoth task for any party. Will it be too much for Cameron? And will any future Labour leader admit the last government had no social housing policy that was worthy of the name?