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John Boughton: It's the Tories who have really been playing party politics with council housing

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“We will never achieve the numbers of new houses we require without the active participation of social and municipal housing providers.” So says the Conservative manifesto and I couldn’t agree more. Of the 400,000-plus homes completed in 1968, 170,000 were built by councils.

Who could argue with the next sentence either: that “this must not be done at the expense of high standards”? That sixties housebuilding peak, achieved on the back of the industrialised methods demanded by both Conservative and Labour governments, might raise alarm bells.

Not all high-rise was bad, far from it, nor even was all system-building; but the failures of both had lasting consequences.

Inside the 1950s Bevin Court by Berthold Lubetkin in Islington

John Boughton: It’s the Tories who have really been playing party politics with council housing

Source: Alamy

Inside the 1950s Bevin Court by Berthold Lubetkin in Islington

On the plus side, local authorities built some of their best housing ever in the 1970s – medium-rise, high-density homes which might serve as a model for today. Negatively, the emergence of hard-to-let homes and ‘problem estates’ eased the way for Margaret Thatcher’s housing revolution which followed.

It’s echoed still in the current manifesto’s assertion that “councils have been amongst the worst offenders in failing to build sustainable, integrated communities”.

Really? Let’s look at the part played by central government. After 1979, well-meaning Labour legislation giving housing priority to the most vulnerable combined catastrophically with Thatcher’s right-to-buy (morth than 1.8 million council homes lost by 1997) and the virtual ban on council new build to increasingly confine council housing to the poorest of our community. Add deindustrialisation and the collapse of traditional working-class employment and you have the toxic mix which did indeed devastate some estates.

With their housing budgets slashed in the 1980s, councils were left to pick up the pieces. Since then, with selective regeneration grants made available, councils and new social housing providers have been doing their best to put things right.

Finally, for sheer chutzpah, there’s this from the manifesto: “In some instances, [councils] have built for political gain rather than for social purpose”. The Conservative suspicion that left-wing politicians built council housing to secure a favourable, even pliant, electorate runs deep.

The brutalist Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets designed by Erno Goldfinger in the 1960s

John Boughton: It’s the Tories who have really been playing party politics with council housing

Source: Alamy

The brutalist Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets designed by Erno Goldfinger in the 1960s

But who’s really been playing politics with council housing? Right-to-buy – both Thatcher’s flagship and David Cameron’s imitative extensions – sold off sorely needed council homes on the cheap for ideological purpose and political gain. When Nick Clegg suggested the coalition government build new social housing, Cameron or Osborne (he couldn’t remember which) was aghast: ”It just creates Labour voters” was their response.

Ms May promises “new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after 10 to 15 years” with the promise that proceeds will be reinvested into further homes. The need for building genuinely affordable social housing at scale has never been stronger but Conservative ideology wins out again. This small concession deserves one cheer only.

John Boughton is a social historian. His blog, Municipal Dreams, is a record of the reforming endeavours of local government with a particular focus on the past and present of council housing. You can follow him on Twitter @MunicipalDreams

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