Socialist Worker

Housing: Labour's dereliction of a whole generation

Alan Walter is a council tenant in Camden, north London, and a leading member of the national Defend Council Housing campaign organisation. He spoke to Socialist Worker about why he is backing Respect in the 10 June elections

Issue No. 1898

ONE MILLION children are living in housing that stunts their health and education, according to a study last week by housing charity Shelter. It found the number of homeless families has increased 31 percent since New Labour was elected in May 1997. There is a housing crisis in Britain. We now have the lowest level of housebuilding since the Second World War. Council housing is virtually not built any more.

The government's own study, published earlier this year, accepted we needed 140,000 new houses built a year in Britain to begin to tackle the crisis. Yet that is not happening. If you go back a few decades it used to be taken for granted by most working class people that you had a home and a job, and people built their lives on those foundations.

Now a decent home is no longer something people can take for granted. It is becoming less and less affordable for a bigger and bigger number of people. You have more and more young people who just can't afford anywhere to live and are forced to stay with their parents well into adulthood. This is distorting people's lives and relationships. It's a fact that bad housing leads to bad health. It leaves most teenagers with nowhere to meet their mates but out on the street. The government is always quick to blame individuals, but it is causing the problems. And sections of the media and leading politicians are quick to blame asylum seekers and immigrants for a housing crisis rooted in privatisation and spending cuts.

Previous generations always thought their children would have a better and easier life than them. Today most people with children wonder if they will be able to find anywhere to live. Labour used to stand for the basic notions of the welfare state, of everyone having access to the health service, education and a decent roof over their heads. Now the government cannot even guarantee these basics. What we are seeing instead is a widening inequality.

It used to be the case that people either got a council house, rented from a private landlord or got a mortgage to buy their home. There was no stigma attached to any of these options. What successive Tory and New Labour governments have done is to promote the idea that owning your own home, or more accurately paying a mortgage, is the only measure of "success".

But those who do manage to get a mortgage end up paying a bigger proportion of their income on housing than any previous generation. And millions live on their nerves, fearing the awful consequences any rise in interest rates could have on them and their families.

What you are seeing now in some areas, like London where I live, is that though there are jobs-many are desperately low paid-house prices are soaring way beyond most people's reach. The other side of the coin is that elsewhere, mainly in the north of England, there are whole areas of empty but first class and affordable housing, but no jobs.

It is a classic example of the madness of the market. The solution isn't rocket science-it's something that this government could do something about. Labour says it is for a fairer society, yet in housing you can see how its policies are driving in exactly the opposite direction. In London where land is scarce you see obscenities like land sold off by local councils to build more luxury apartments instead of council housing. You even get this government and local councils promoting this as a way of tackling "social exclusion".

They talk of bringing more "aspirational" people into an area as helping everyone. As if working class people looking out of our windows and seeing the rich in their luxury apartments across the way getting into the BMW or 4x4 will make us feel better about low wages, bad working conditions, or poor housing. The truth is New Labour has only one real housing policy-privatisation. Ever since council housing was conceived at the start of the 20th century the private sector has smarted over the fact that here was a part of society from which they could not make a profit.

There have been successive attempts to change that, to allow the private sector to grab control of council housing, with battles in the 1970s and 1980s. But under New Labour there has been a total onslaught. It is an incredible fact that this government has now privatised more council homes that the Tories did in all their 18 years in office. The government says we have three options for existing council housing. One is straightforward stock transfer to a housing association or "registered social landlord" as they call them.

The second is the Private Finance Initiative-which is working its destructive path through so many of our public services already. The third is the two-stage privatisation of what they call Arms Length Management companies (ALMOs). But they are not getting away with it, and their privatisation drive has stoked up growing opposition.

Where tenants and trade unionists have organised to put the arguments privatisation of council housing has been rejected. We defeated it for example in Birmingham, and more recently in Wrexham as well as in scores of other areas. And here in Camden where I live we won a major victory earlier this year when we defeated a plan to set up one of the two-stage privatisations.

One demand is coming loud and clear out of all of these campaigns. Tenants don't want the three privatisation options on offer from New Labour, but a "fourth option" of direct investment in council housing without any strings. You even get people who are core New Labour supporters increasingly bewildered and demoralised at the housing policies they are handed down to implement by the government.

It's good that they are objecting, but what we need is a clear political alternative, one that puts the interests of people first. While I think it is essential to unite with all those in the Labour Party prepared to campaign to defend council housing, I think we also need a political alternative which stands up for ordinary people on a range of issues-not just a single-issue campaign.

  • For more information go to the Defend Council Housing website

    Number of people officially accepted as homeless in England




    201,550 - an increase of 22%

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    Sat 24 Apr 2004, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1898
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