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It’s Time to Be Honest about Housing

For decades terms like 'affordable,' 'social,' 'mixed' have been used as cover for market failures in housing - it's time to move on from those schemes and commit to a real solution: council housing.

When it comes to housing, language matters. Politicians, bureaucrats, big business and self-appointed experts have become well-versed in using words that convey one thing, but mean another. This doublespeak has been deliberately used to underpin a particular policy approach which, at root, favours the failed capitalist market over socialist alternatives.  

But whatever the political outlook, there’s no denying we have an acute housing emergency. As we approach a general election in which tackling the crisis will be a vital issue, it’s imperative to challenge and change the misleading terminology that’s been used as cover for policies that are causing huge damage to working class communities – and in some places, the reputation of the Labour Party.

If you want to get a laugh out of someone eager to hop on the housing ladder, say “affordable housing” – because most people know how little it means. The abuse of the term began in 2010 when the Tory-led coalition government defined affordable rent as anything up to 80% of the full market level. This opened a door, which was already ajar, for private developers to get planning permission while purporting to provide affordable homes, but at prices well beyond the means of most people and bearing no relationship to local housing need.  

Another discredited term is “social housing.” This has been used as a convenient catch-all to disguise important differences between different types of non-market rented homes.  

The prime culprits for this deliberate distortion are Housing Associations (HAs), particularly the big ones who have become virtually indistinguishable from private developers. The origins of this charade was in the Blair-Brown era policy of stock transfer, which drove two million council homes – and the land they stand on – out of public ownership into the private sector, a bigger transfer of wealth than any of the Thatcher-era privatisations.

This could usually only happen after tenants had voted in favour of the move. To persuade them, HAs needed to create the subterfuge that they were more or less the same as councils. They’re not. HAs are legally defined, constituted and operated as private businesses, and their tenants have significantly weaker legal rights and higher rents. Referring to HAs as “social landlords” providing “social housing” hides these facts.

The next item in the linguistic three-card trick is “mixed communities.” This term has assumed sacred status in urban policy and government circles, without any evidence to support it. The concept is that bringing people from different socio-economic backgrounds together in one place produces multiple benefits. On its surface, that seems plausible.

But in practice, what might be a laudable aim is based on deception, hypocrisy and class prejudice. The reality of “mixed” housing developments is often physical separation by tenure, as graphically illustrated by Guardian journalist Harriet Grant’s exposure of the segregation of children’s play areas. Commonly, so called “mixed” housing means social renters in one building, private owners in another, where they enjoy better facilities and probably a better view.  

The mixed mantra suggests it’s better for working class communities to have middle class people living with them, acting as role models and bringing trickle-down wealth and cultural diversity to an area, reflected in new shops and coffee bars. I once discussed this with a property developer, who worked for a HA. He said “we thought it was going to be better for the estate as a whole to have a Tesco there that didn’t sell out of date milk and the odd bottle of twenty year old Blue Nun… we’d have thought we’d arrived if there was a Starbucks there or a deli, as well as the pound shop.”

The prime targets for such social engineering are council estates subject to large scale “regeneration” projects, another word that’s become heavily loaded. Again, some of the responsibility for this lies with New Labour. In 1998, Tony Blair launched the New Deal for Communities at the Aylesbury estate in south London. Today, the area is testimony to how housing policies dominated by private developers have reshaped working class communities and the role of HAs in this.

The Elephant and Castle neighbourhood is being physically, socially and ethnically transformed. This started with the demolition of the Heygate estate, a classic for stigmatised perceptions of council housing and the people who live in it. As the local 35% Campaign has meticulously documented, a succession of promises to Heygate residents were broken to arrive at a situation where 1,214 council homes were demolished, to be replaced with 2,704 new homes, of which only 82 (3%) are for social rent. The HA partner was London and Quadrant. To be eligible for the cheapest one-bedroom home built by them on the Heygate site, people needed a minimum household income of £57,500. The average household income in that part of Southwark is £24,324.   

There are numerous similar examples from other places around the country, where a seductive lexicon has been used to camouflage brutal profit-seeking and displacement. At Labour’s 2017 conference, Jeremy Corbyn correctly referred to such practices as “social cleansing.” There is also a strong element of institutional racism in policies that favour better-off home owners and seek to recreate an area in their image – as James Baldwin bluntly put it, “urban renewal means negro removal.” But the other critical point about the policies that lie behind the words is that they don’t work! We’ve had over 20 years of the developer-led, public-private partnership model and the housing crisis has only got worse.  

It is essential that the Labour Party breaks with the misleading, dishonest and failed housing policies of the past. The first step for doing this is restoring real council housing to the mainstream, as the centrepiece of a comprehensive rethink. The opportunity is there. Party conference has unanimously adopted a raft of transformative measures, including ending right-to-buy, improving rights for private tenants, using publicly-owned land to build publicly-owned homes and reforming HAs. They must be included in the election manifesto. 

For too long, mealy-mouthed Labour politicians have seemed embarrassed by council housing. This has allowed the language of housing to be captured and twisted by corporate interests. Council housing cuts through the verbiage. Working class communities know what it means, how it works and why it’s important. Sometimes those qualities can be taken for granted, so it’s worth repeating them. 

Only council housing offers genuinely affordable rents and secure tenancies that can form the foundation of people’s lives. Only council housing is directly linked to the democratic process.  Decisions are taken in public, by elected politicians who can be voted out. Another linguistic distortion by hostile forces is that council housing is “subsidised,” when, in fact, it generates a net surplus and receives far less public money than the private market. 

Council housing also has the capacity to link to wider social policy objectives, particularly around environmentalism. Climate change won’t be stopped through the individualism fostered by the ideology of private home ownership. Above all, council housing works because it’s not subject to the whims of the speculative property market.     

It’s a supreme perversion of language that council housing is sometimes attacked because it provides “a home for life.” Labour needs to turn that around and say that’s exactly what we want.