Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

We Don’t Just Need Council Housing – We Need Good Council Housing

It's hard to resist privatisation or gentrification when the council housing being defended is falling apart – we need to fight for high-quality public housing that really improves lives.

A block of flats in the former Heygate public housing estate are demolished on 16 April 2014 in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

Photos from local campaigners of newly built homes in Southwark with missing bricks aren’t a story about council housing. They’re a metaphor for a chronically dysfunctional construction industry. The exact reason behind the gaps in the wall, which Southwark Council says are a deliberate design feature, shouldn’t obscure the real issues behind a failed system for providing an essential human need. As Herbert Marcuse succinctly observed: ‘The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.’

There are few more emotive places for these photos than the Aylesbury estate, near the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood of South London. No area provides more graphic evidence of the ill-conceived model of urban regeneration that has dominated policy for decades.

The 1,214 home Heygate estate used to be just up the road from the Aylesbury estate. Plans for redeveloping the Heygate began in 2000, hastened by the New Labour government’s hostility to council housing, but with Southwark Council originally pledging ‘100% reprovision’ of any council homes lost. Demolition began in 2011, replacing the homes of 3,000 working-class people with 2,704 new homes, of which all but 82 were for the over-heated London housing market. As Professor Paul Watt, author of Estate Regeneration and its Discontents comments: ‘The Heygate is the poster-child for state-led gentrification because it has such a massive reduction in any form of social housing.’ The litany of broken promises along the way has seriously damaged not only the reputation of the council in the eyes of many tenants, but also of the Labour Party.

This disillusionment was compounded when the Aylesbury estate was emptied and moth-balled for years, while thousands languished on housing waiting lists and the council spent millions of pounds on temporary accommodation, attempts to buy out leaseholders, and a highly dubious deal with Notting Hill Genesis housing association to redevelop the estate.

However, the Southwark photos also reflect tentative signs that local councils are beginning to see the error of their ways. After years of denying that council housing had a future—and even trying to eliminate the term—the policy wheel is slowly turning back to a recognition that the private market is incapable of providing the homes we need. My council, Tower Hamlets, after years of attacking it, is now boasting that it’s starting to build council homes again.

Southwark campaigner Jerry Flynn welcomes the change of direction in his borough, but adds some words of caution:

It’s good that Southwark are getting council homes for the borough, on the Aylesbury and elsewhere, but it must also make sure Notting Hill Genesis build and pay for all the social rented homes that it agreed to. New council housing should be on top of the social housing we were promised, not instead of it.

Jerry’s reservations are based on long experience of duplicitous property developers. The culture of the industry, of which most so-called ‘social landlords’ like Notting Hill Genesis are now firmly a part, is too often overlooked.

Having worked in and alongside it for many years, I’d describe the ethos as institutionally cynical, dysfunctional, and suffused with a macho ideology that is often racist and sexist. The boards of big development companies (and housing associations) are dominated by white men operating with minimal transparency or accountability. For decades, the building industry has been associated with appalling employment practices, poor safety standards, and union busting, most graphically illustrated by the blacklisting scandal. The buck-passing over cladding is just another example of an industry without a social conscience. While millions suffer housing misery, the big house builders make billions in profit.

But these are the organisations the government trusts to build our homes. Far too often, the industry’s culture contributes to poor quality in how housing is built and maintained. The most appalling evidence of this are incidents like Grenfell and Twin Parks, but the industry seems oblivious to the risks, as proved by the crass insensitivity of a reckless planning application to build a 35-storey apartment block with one fire escape in the shadow of Grenfell. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate shelter, Leilani Farha, says, housing has never been more of a ‘life or death situation’, particularly in the context of global pandemics—and the current profit-driven model is also totally incapable of addressing the existential environmental threat, of which domestic energy efficiency is a significant part.

The antidote to the toxic, unsustainable culture of the private market is democratically controlled council housing, which, according to the last English Housing Survey—and despite years of under-investment and denigration—is still in better overall condition than homes in the private sector.

In 2018, the CEO of a private insurance company said: ‘Poor build quality is an increasing issue in the UK housing market… design and quality is being compromised.’ In 2020, a research report by the Bartlett School of Planning found a majority of new developments by big housebuilders were of such low quality that they shouldn’t have been built.

By contrast, as the wonderful Municipal Dreams blog chronicles, a lot of council housing was built to the highest design and construction standards and much has survived the test of time. This tradition continued with the 2019 Stirling architecture award-winning Goldsmith Street development in Norwich—a model of what’s possible.

Sadly, the Estate Watch website still records over 100 council estates, in London alone, under threat of demolition. Despite the evidence to the contrary, too many councils still have a blind faith in corporate developers and are using new methods to transfer publicly owned homes into private hands, including manipulating estate ballots, as recently happened in Haringey. Too often, those new council homes that are being built are at rents significantly above the levels that have made the sector the only truly affordable form of rented housing in many cities. There are few signs this will change under Starmer’s private-sector friendly Labour Party.

However, around the world, people are calling for an alternative to the tyranny of the private market and a fundamental rethink of the place of housing in our society. Covid has radicalised grassroots housing campaigns and challenged capitalist property norms. Homeless people have been housed in hotels, empty homes have been occupied, rent strikes have broken out in many places, and vociferous activism has won prolonged suspensions of evictions.  Even in the US, where public housing has been a virtual taboo for generations, awareness is growing of the need for serious government investment in homes that don’t cost lives, or the earth.

But the failure of the Biden administration to deliver on its Build Back Better agenda confirms we can’t trust our homes to establishment politicians, any more than private developers. Half a century of neoliberalism has taken us back to deadly, sub-standard Victorian housing conditions that were only changed by working-class communities and the labour movement demanding a housing system we control, instead of being controlled by it.