By Alistair Farrow
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John McDonnell pledges council housing – but Labour is divided

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Issue 2609
A council estate in Sheffield - half abandoned. Council housing needs more investment
A council estate in Sheffield – half abandoned. Council housing needs more investment (Pic: Paolo Margari/Flickr)

The Labour Party can’t agree on housing policy just as the Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted the urgent need to address the crisis.

One key divide is over council housing.

Labour has said it will build one million homes over ten years if it wins the next election—and the one after. Half will be built by private firms.

The debate in the party focuses on what the other 500,000 will consist of—council or social housing.

Social housing includes housing associations, which are increasingly behaving like private companies.

At the party’s 2016 conference Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said half of the million new homes would be council homes.

Theresa Pearce, then shadow housing minister, swiftly got up and said the 500,000 would be social housing.

That line has stuck since. Current shadow housing minister John Healey has enforced it.

But, speaking to Socialist Worker last Saturday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said he favoured council building.


“We’re demanding council housing,” he said. “We’re now talking to local government leaders to ensure that there is the capacity they need to ensure it is council housing and that it’s built by direct labour wherever possible.”

Healey said last year that to solve the housing crisis he would ring house building firms first, housing associations second, and councils only third.

When Socialist Worker pointed this out to McDonnell, he reiterated his position.

“Our priority will be council houses built by councils themselves,” he said. “The issue is building up the capacity of those councils to do it.

“We’ve had eight years of councils being battered. It’s not just direct labour units going—it’s planning officers and planning departments being depleted as well.”

McDonnell’s comments are welcome, despite the qualifications.

In the immediate aftermath of Grenfell Corbyn called for the requisitioning of the empty homes of the rich in Kensington and Chelsea.

Healey’s line over Grenfell is that the Tories must do more and Labour would be better—true, but hardly inspirational.

Corbyn did well at last year’s election because of the hope he inspired in ordinary people. The Labour leadership must show that hope was not misplaced.

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