Even Michael Portillo says the UK needs more council housing

In a Channel 5 documentary tonight, Michael Portillo addresses the UK’s housing crisis, and whether his party is to blame. 

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In Michael Portillo: Our Housing Crisis – Who’s to Blame?, Michael Portillo travels around the UK visiting the estates that illustrate the history of social housing. As a local government minister under Margaret Thatcher and a Treasury Secretary and Employment Secretary under John Major, Portillo was a member of two governments that oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of council houses per year into private ownership. So who does he think is to blame for the housing crisis?

While Portillo acknowledges that the original aim of council housing was to provide high quality, spacious homes at subsidised rents to working families who had suffered through two world wars, he argues that the project was derailed by Labour. By making the homeless and most vulnerable eligible for housing, Portillo says the Labour governments of the 70s deposited large numbers of people in high-rise estates, creating a culture of unemployment and crime.

Portillo doesn’t deny that the course of council housing was changed irrevocably by his government’s introduction of the “Right to Buy” policy, which enabled council house tenants to buy their homes for a heavily reduced rate. Since 1980, 1.9m council homes have been sold, and Portillo questions closely the effect this policy, which he supported, has had on housing in the UK.

For some, Right to Buy has been a bonanza. On a visit to the first ever council estate in the UK – the Boundary estate in Shoreditch – Portillo meets residents who bought their property under Right to Buy for £17,500; many of the flats now sell for over £1m.

The problem is not, Portillo says, that council flats were sold to those who could afford them, but that the stock has not been replenished. Of the 6.5 million council homes that existed in 1980, only two million remain. “I look back and wonder,” Portillo says to the camera, “why haven’t we done more to replace them?”

The programme also takes the former Enfield MP to some of the most deprived estates in the country, where he meets families awaiting eviction, experiencing nervous breakdowns, and facing the risk of relocation far from the communities they have spent their lives in.

During a visit to the Druids Heath estate in Birmingham, where half of children live below the poverty line, he visits a food bank and finds “tenants living in sub-standard accommodation, struggling for the basics of survival.” He calls the conditions “shocking”.

His journey ends on a building site in Canary Wharf, where a private developer explains to Portillo that 25 per cent of the new flats will be allocated for “affordable housing”, with rent capped at 50 per cent of the market rate. Portillo argues that in Canary Wharf people can pay as much as £2,000 per month, making even subsidised rent unaffordable. The developer merely shrugs and points out that they are meeting the legal requirement, set by this and previous governments.

Despite his experiences, Portillo remains committed to home ownership. More council homes must be built, he says, but not on the national debt. Private developers, not the state, would build social and council housing in Portillo’s answer to the crisis. As to who’s at fault, “you can’t blame Maggie for everything”, he argues. “It is nearly 30 years since she was in office, and successive Labour and Conservative governments have shown little enthusiasm for building more council houses.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.