Council housebuilding has revived in London — but much greater radicalism is needed

As we celebrate 100 years of social housing, councils deserve far greater investment and powers from ministers. 

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Seven years ago, I met families moving into some of the first new council homes Islington had built in a generation. I was the council’s new cabinet member for housing and the homes were on the same road as the constituency office of local MP Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy joined me and the local councillors on the visit – all of us excited the council was building housing again.

Last year we had good reason to be excited across London. Councils began building more new council homes than they have for over three decades. They did so with the support of the first-ever City Hall programme dedicated to council homebuilding, and following local elections at which council housing had been front-and-centre in manifestos across the capital.

This is a real success – but we need to go much, much further. Although we started building nearly 2,000 council homes last year, that is just a tenth of the level that council homebuilding reached in London in its heyday four decades ago. To truly build all the council homes we need, we need far greater investment and powers from the government.

The government will no doubt say they have already helped councils by last year removing the extra borrowing limits on housing departments. This change was certainly welcome, but it was well overdue. It is a change that I and countless others have long fought for, and it is only the very first step in what councils need.

So, what else do councils need? First, they need more money from the government. There’s no getting around this. City Hall’s council homebuilding programme is giving councils £1bn of investment over four years. But recent analysis we produced with councils and housing associations showed that London needs around five times that amount for affordable housing every single year.

Second, councils need bigger teams to build homes. Council housing departments have been hollowed out over many years, particularly by the last decade of cuts. At City Hall we set up a £10m “Homebuilding Capacity Fund” to plug at least a small portion of this gap. This fund was hugely oversubscribed, showing how hungry councils are to expand their homebuilding abilities – they just need the resources to do so.

And third, councils need powers to buy land for housing. At present, councils are building almost entirely on land they already own. To build on a much greater scale over the years to come, they need to be able to build on many more sites. We need a government which will overhaul the rules on how land can be valued and bought – so that councils can get their hands on more land, more quickly, at prices not driven by speculation.

These three steps should form the foundation of a radical package of support for council homebuilding – a package that should also suspend the Right to Buy. It simply cannot be right that investors who have bought former council homes off their original owners are now, in many cases, letting out homes privately to tenants who need housing benefit to cover the high cost of market rents.

It is also crucial that this package strengthens the voice of social housing residents. Ballots should be made mandatory on all plans for estate regeneration – building on our decision to make them a requirement for City Hall funding. Beyond that, the government should work with tenants to design reforms that overhaul the ombudsman and regulator, making them far easier to access, and making the latter far more focused on resident concerns than “economic standards” as is currently the case.

A radical package to help councils build is what we need as we celebrate 100 years of council housing. The Housing Act 1919 – also known as the Addison Act – introduced council homebuilding on a large scale and paved the way for the growth of council housing over much of the 20th century.

After council homebuilding was devastated in the 1980s, councils are now paving the way for its future. We need a government that is as excited about new council housing as Jeremy and I were on that day seven years ago, and that will empower councils to go as far as possible.

As council housing enters its second century, we should fight to make sure it is at the heart of fixing the housing crisis, and at the heart of the London we want to build.

James Murray is deputy mayor of London for housing and a former Islington councillor.