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16 June 2017

After Grenfell, we need to change how we talk about council housing

Services for the poor become poor services.

By Jonn Elledge

The words “Labour gain Kensington” were one of the biggest shocks of last week’s election, but they shouldn’t have been, really. While the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) as a whole is the richest in London, its northern-most wards are among the city’s most deprived. That so many commentators were so surprised when Labour won serves mainly to highlight that we’d forgotten that poor people live there. 

The stories now emerging about the maintenance of the Grenfell Tower suggest that the council had done much the same. Local residents warned repeatedly that a number of local blocks were at risk of fire. Those warnings were ignored.

Accusations that the Tory council is in favour of social cleansing are probably overdone. The council has talked about dealing with its waiting list by sourcing homes outside the borough (often, in all likelihood, a long way outside). But similar plans can be found all over London, and mostly reflect the scale of waiting lists and the shortage of housing, rather than a sinister plan to actively export the wrong sort of people.

Nonetheless, it is – let’s be charitable about this – not obvious that RBKC has gone out of its way to meet its duty of care towards its poorer residents.

It’s certainly not been building the homes required to house them. Between 2004 and 2014, according to the Mayor of London’s office, four boroughs managed to increase their total housing stock by over 15 per cent; Tower Hamlets managed nearly 30. In RBKC, though, housing stock grew by just 1 per cent: only two councils in the whole of England performed worse, neither of them in London. The council would no doubt point out it was already one of the most densely populated areas in the whole of England. This would be a valid point, were it not for the fact that the three which are denser have all managed an increase of 15 per cent or more.

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As fun as it is beating up on a Tory council for being Tory, though, RBKC is far from the only council with an under-resourced housing department. The decline of British council housing is a national problem, and one which goes back a very long way.

Once upon a time, council housing was part of the welfare state – something that was there for anyone, of whatever class, who wanted it. Council planning departments were packed with visionary young architects, hoping to remake the post-war world. Housing was, to a great extent, what councils were for.

Since then, though, it’s turned out that many of the estates they built were badly designed, and many more have been undone through poor maintenance. What’s more, the last 30 years of housing policy have focused – initially in practice; latterly, more in theory – on extending home ownership.

Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy enabled (largely Labour-voting) council tenants to magically transform themselves into (largely Tory-voting) homeowners. Significantly, the government never intended to replace the council homes it sold.

The clear implication was that, for the respectable, aspirational voter, home ownership was required to be a full member of society. What this meant for those who remained in council housing was something that was never quite articulated.

The last Labour government didn’t try to change these attitudes: its focus, too, was on ownership, and while it spent billions on upgrading existing council housing, it built remarkably little. In 1953, local authorities built 245,000 houses. In 2004, they built 130. (More recently, they’ve been managing around 2,700 – a figure that only looks impressive if you read it right after the one for 2004.)

At any rate: in the last 40 years, the proportion of the population living in social housing has halved. What’s more, the insularity of both media and politics means that, when we talk about housing, we tend to talk about house prices or bad private landlords – not the state of the social homes that still house one in six of the population.

All this means that, in the age of austerity, the political pressure to invest in what remains has been minimal: services for the poor become poor services. Worse, many councils, facing budget cuts of 50 per cent or more, have been forced to look around for what assets they have to sweat.

In London, especially, that has meant their land, and the homes it contains. If you’ve ever wondered why councils are so keen to redevelop estates, and why existing tenants get squeezed out when they do, this is why.

Even before the tragic events of this week, it was clear that this had to change. A city cannot function without nurses or cleaners or retail workers: not everyone in London will ever be able to afford London housing costs. But people do not cease to need homes, simply because they can’t afford them. If the market won’t provide – and it should be abundantly clear by now that it won’t – then the state must step up.

If it did, then maybe we would shake this ludicrous idea that having the state as a landlord means that, somehow, you’ve failed. And maybe then councils would feel pressure to treat their tenants as citizens or customers to whom they owed a decent standard of home – rather than people who should take what they’re given and be grateful.

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