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Home wreckers: New Labour’s housing policy

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
There is a crisis in affordable housing across Britain. In one area you can expect to be on a housing waiting list for 90 years. Simon Basketter explains how we got in this mess
Issue 2162

The crisis in housing has reached an epic scale. A property is repossessed every 10 minutes. Some five million people are on housing waiting lists. And millions more spend each night in damp, insecure or overcrowded accommodation.

They are all victims of a housing crisis created by free market dogma and the decimation of council housing – first under the Tories and then Labour.

Housing charity Shelter has found that a quarter of all households – whether owned or rented – say that worry over housing costs is causing them stress or depression.

Shelter figures show that a quarter of households are dealing with soaring housing costs by cutting back on food.

Three million households have had to sell possessions to pay for housing. One in 10 have taken on an extra job or overtime to try to meet the costs.

Housing is a political crisis for the main political parties. For over a quarter of a century, British governments have been geared towards a single goal – encouraging private home ownership.

Ever since Tory leader Margaret Thatcher introduced the “right to buy” for council tenants in 1980, both Tory and Labour governments have promoted the idea of a “property owning democracy” where housing is determined by the market rather than the state.

Combined with the chronic shortage of council housing, it’s easy to see why millions of people despair of ever having a secure and settled place to call home.

Disgracefully, at the same time as people struggle to find a decent place to live, hundreds of thousands of privately owned properties in Britain lie empty.

Some 300,000 private homes in England have been empty for more than six months on top of 75,000 in Scotland.

If you include second homes in the figures, then there are about 700,000 empty properties in England.


The speculative buy-to-let boom has resulted in even more empty flats that no one can afford to buy. In Leeds alone, 70 percent of city centre apartments are unoccupied. In Liverpool 35 percent of city centre flats are left empty by owners waiting for prices to rise.

New Labour’s dogmatic insistence on “market solutions” will do nothing to solve the crisis – the market is responsible for the mess in the first place.

Housing in rural areas is no better. People applying for an affordable home in the ten rural districts with the longest waiting lists face a wait of up to 90 years, on average, before enough new homes will be built to clear the backlog.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, the worst affected area, it would take 280 years at the current rate of building for all the homes that are needed to be built.

The market has failed. It has led to nothing but homelessness and exploitative private rents. This is the reason why subsidised and council-owned housing was introduced in the first place.

Shelter has calculated that the number of council and housing association houses available for rent is at the lowest level for 50 years. The housing charity warns of a “growing chasm between the number of homes required and the number available”.

The number of households in temporary accommodation rose by 135 percent between 2001 and 2008. Many people no longer bother to put their names on council lists because they see no hope of ever getting a council home.


Between 1980 and 2005, almost 450,000 council homes for rent have been sold at large discounts. The result is that last year there were only 599,000 council properties available to rent from UK local authorities.

In comparison, in the year prior to Thatcher’s election in 1979, some 100,000 council properties were built, while the private sector built approximately 150,000 new homes for sale.

Almost half the population lived in council homes in England in 1979. The proportion was even higher in cities like Sheffield, where council rentals approached two thirds of all rented housing.

Today, local authorities house just 12 percent of the British population. Another 6 percent of live in properties managed by housing associations.

The government’s solution has been “regeneration schemes” and yet more use of the private sector.

The “regeneration” of Grahame Park in Barnet, North London, sums up what these policies mean. Some 1,771 council flats will metamorphose into 1,220 “affordable” homes and 2,220 private homes under the scheme.

It’s unlikely that many of the original tenants will have the “right of return”.

The growth of housing associations has taken place alongside a decline in the number of people in decent rented accommodation.

What’s more, the government’s reliance on them is in crisis as the debts of housing associations get out of control.

Even the government’s help for those in trouble with their mortgage is falling apart. The government’s mortgage rescue scheme launched this January has helped only six families, not the 6,000 it targeted.

Subsidised housing is the only serious way to house people fairly and rationally and council housing – which is democratically controlled by tenants – is the best way to do that.

Until the government recognises that fact, the misery and insanity caused by the market will continue.


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