Housing is Labour’s biggest failure. More public rented housing is essential as homelessness and waiting lists grow, along with the proportion of first time buyers priced out of the market.
Yet we’re building less houses than ever before. There’s a £12 billion repair backlog but the government won’t provide the money for it – though it’s less than the cost of ID cards.
The decent homes target is slipping. Yet instead of powering up to meet it, the government is concentrating all its efforts on an ideological war to bribe, bamboozle and bully councils into privatising their housing stock.
As a result we’re wasting millions of pounds to give away billions of pounds in public assets built up by local councils.
We’re frustrating tenants, most of whom want to stay with the council and have it do the repairs and renovations.
This government believes in choice but that’s a choice they’re not allowed to make.
We’re dividing the Labour Party. We’re castrating councils. We’re shrinking the rented housing stock because of our obsession with owner occupation which a lot of people don’t want.
The presiding genius of this policy is deputy prime minister John Prescott.
Last year he was told by the Labour conference to give councils a better financial deal. He told critics he wouldn’t.
This year he was beaten overwhelmingly and given more precise instructions.
Yet he’s still breathing defiance like a sulky schoolboy.
A sensible policy of three strikes and you’re out and it would be goodbye Prezza in 2006. Yet there’s no need to go to such lengths.
He could save himself by implementing the Fourth Option.
Its essence is simple. We should put councils and housing associations on a level playing field rather than starving councils and lavishing money on social landlords as we do now.
Ministers claim this would be expensive. Not so, but it would stop government from filching huge sums from councils by looting their housing revenue accounts.
It’s already stolen £13 billion (enough to do all the repairs now outstanding) through daylight robbery (which required tenants to pay the housing benefit of poorer tenants).
That stopped only last year and even now the money for the benefits should go to housing.
Even now government is still filching £1.5 billion pounds a year to redistribute and to pay historic debt (which is written off for housing associations and should be for councils).
The £0.5 billion a year revenue from right to buy sales should also be kept for councils to use on housing.
That, plus some prudent borrowing for housing purposes, and bingo!
Most councils would be able to do their own repairs and even build new houses.
For councils with particular problems we might need to allocate a small amount of the huge sums currently wasted on consultancies, fees, lying propaganda and endless advice which always comes up with the same answer — privatise.
The Fourth Option is what we need to allow councils to make their contribution to the massive housing drive Britain needs to boost our flagging economy.
With consumer demand down and government spending on a plateau, only a big building programme could now generate the growth and the jobs we need. Why doesn’t John Prescott get on with that instead of fighting dead, ideological battles with councils over the people’s housing, which all previous Labour governments and councils have been so proud of?
Austin Mitchell is the Labour MP for Grimsby.
Defend Council Housing National Meeting
Saturday 29 October, 1–4pm,
High St, Digbeth,
Birmingham B12 0LN
(near National Coach terminal).
All campaign supporters welcome.