By Glyn Robbins
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Housing minus the market

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Housing activist Glyn Robbins guides us on a virtual tour of east London to demonstrate how the early vision of public housing for working class people became a nightmare of private speculation.
Issue 401

As anger about the housing crisis mounts, two interlinked features recur: political impotence and theoretical abstraction. Despite the frustration of millions of people about the lack of affordable homes, the political establishment appears to have no ideas for solving the problem.

One of the often quoted excuses is that housing is complicated and that we need “experts” to solve it. This has the duel effect of spreading a sense of fatalism and maintaining the status quo of failed neoliberal policy supported by vested interests that have no incentive to solve the housing crisis because they profit from it.

Housing isn’t complicated; it is only capitalism and the financial nexus of private property that make it so. This is as true today as it was when Engels wrote about The Housing Question in 1872. A short walk through Bethnal Green in east London illustrates that the housing crisis can be solved, but only through direct public investment.

Our journey begins at the cradle of council housing, the Boundary Estate. Like today, Victorian Britain faced a severe housing crisis from which private landlordism profited. A Royal Commission led to legislation giving newly formed local authorities powers to clear the insanitary hovels built by speculative builders and replace them with the first generation of municipal housing. The matchwomen’s strike of 1888 and the Great Dock Strike of 1889, both in the East End, presaged the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890.

In 1891 the fledgling London County Council began clearing the notorious Nichol slum and replacing it with 23 individually styled tenement blocks providing homes for 5,500 people, alongside shops, public baths, workshops and laundries. Under the visionary leadership of architect Owen Flemming, the Boundary set new aesthetic standards and is an enduring legacy of public housing investment.

In 2006 the forces of privatisation circling around council housing tried to entice tenants to transfer the estate to a housing association, but this was overwhelmingly rejected. As a result, the Boundary acts as a publicly owned firebreak against the rampaging, speculative east London property market. Round the corner in Columbia Road is Leopold Buildings, built in 1872 and reflecting a very different housing policy tradition. The block was built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, one of the philanthropic organisations that evolved into housing associations (HAs).

This was housing provision based not on entitlement, but charity. However, the relatively modest returns of the Victorian “Five Percenters” are dwarfed by the bank balances of today’s commercially oriented, but reputedly non-profit Registered Providers (RPs) such as the Peabody Trust, which completed its first block just down the road in Commercial Street in 1862.

Today Peabody has a stock of 28,000, a portfolio of commercial property and various trading arms. Although the majority of its homes are for “social rent”, a growing proportion are of other types, including housing for sale and let as misnamed “Affordable Rents” at up to 80 percent of the market level. Its 2013 annual accounts showed an operating surplus from its rented homes of £35 million and reserves of £290 million. Peabody’s chief executive receives a salary of £200,000.

The changing culture of housing associations and Registered Providers belies their history and image of benevolence. They have become part of the rapacious property development that is making it increasingly difficult for people on low and medium incomes to live in parts of our cities.

Proceeding east along Columbia Road are the 19-storey Sivill House and the 265-home Dorset Estate, named in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and designed by the architectural practice that included Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin. Lubetkin, like Flemming before him, believed that workers’ housing should be light, airy, well fitted and spacious, set amid generous landscaped gardens. By contrast, today’s house-building industry squeezes the smallest, most poorly insulated homes in Europe onto every inch of open space.

Sivill House and the Dorset Estate are products of the high-point of council housing and illustrate that political pressure can defy expectations. Between 1951 and 1964 at least 100,000 municipal homes a year were built — under a Tory government. Despite its impressive achievements, the post-war Labour government’s response to the housing shortage was perceived as inadequate. The Tory administration that replaced it reasserted the pre-eminence of the private sector, but also recognised that only state intervention could meet its pledge of “more houses more quickly”. However, the unscrupulous role of some private builders led to the denigration of council housing.

Designed by Dennis Lasdun and completed in 1957, Keeling House was the first listed municipal tower block, but the laudable aim of recreating the communal qualities of traditional streets was undermined by structural defects. By the early 1990s Keeling stood empty and symbolised “everything wrong with doctrinaire post-war planning” (Independent, 27 January 1993). This judgement is contradicted by Keeling’s current status.

The block was given away to a private developer by the New Labour council in 1998 and is now marketed as luxury accommodation where a two-bedroom flat costs some £500,000 to buy or more than £2,000 a month to rent, a grotesque demonstration of the over-heated housing market and the squandering of public assets.

Across the road is the Minerva Estate. It was part of the post-war house building programme that saw 1 million homes built in five years — 80 percent of them by councils — amid the social and economic wreckage of war, under a government that was more indebted than today’s. The Architectural Journal of the time commented with wonder: “Every flat has a dresser, a broom cupboard, fuel storage bunker and is fitted with wardrobe cupboards in every bedroom. There is a solid fuel fire in the living room and gas or electric fires in the main bedroom.”

The Minerva used recycled concrete to reduce costs and innovative design to optimise space, but was also part of a philosophy that sought to do more than just build homes. This was eloquently expressed by health and housing minister Aneurin Bevan: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of a citizen…to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.”

Unlike those on the Boundary, homes on the Minerva were among the 1.2 million that have been transferred to housing associations and Registered Providers, the majority of them under the last New Labour government. The impact of de facto privatisation of council housing is not just felt by tenants and leaseholders.

Despite their benign image, many housing associations and Registered Providers don’t treat their workers well either. The high-profile and successful dispute at St Mungo’s/Broadway last autumn is indicative of the attacks on pay and conditions of housing workers that accompany housing associations’ and Registered Providers’ increasing ruthlessness. The Minerva Estate is testimony to a belief that the lives of working class people could not be abandoned to the fate of the market.

The incremental stigmatisation of and underinvestment in public housing obscures the fact that, in the 1970s, 30 percent of us were council tenants and 50 percent of completions were by local authorities. Since then house building has reduced by two-thirds; councils have been virtually eliminated as providers of new homes and HAs/RPs have failed to fill the gap.

There’s currently a bidding war between the establishment political parties about how many new homes each would build if they win the election. It’s meaningless. “What type?” and “Who by?” are just as important as “How many?” The arguments for and against council housing are not architectural or technical, but ideological and political. The case for council housing can’t be won through nostalgia. However, it is essential to recall that during its heyday council housing was at the visionary cutting-edge of design and innovation — and it can be again.

It was a shame to hear Green Party leader Natalie Bennett struggling to explain how we can build the homes we need. This reinforced the sense of confusion that characterises current discourse, even from those with more progressive policies than those of the establishment parties. “How would you pay for it?” and “Where would you build them?” are red herrings. What previous governments understood is that public money spent on decent housing is an investment.

If we build homes people can afford, we can reduce the £25 billion we currently spend on housing benefit to help people live in homes they can’t afford, 40 percent of which ends up in the pockets of private landlords.

We can stop all the publicly financed schemes the current and previous governments have introduced to seduce people into buying their own home at the very margin of what they can afford. When the property bubble bursts, we are on the hook for billions of pounds as people fail to pay the mortgages underwritten by public money.

We can stop the wanton disposal of public land. The latest fire sale announced by Eric Pickles promises the private sector enough public land to build 103,000 homes, but most of these will be homes for temporary private profit and the value of the public land will be lost for ever.

We can do what the Labour Party used to campaign for — take people off the dole and give them decent jobs and apprenticeships building the homes we need. Finally, by seeing housing as a social asset, not a private commodity, we can make a serious attempt to reduce the domestic energy consumption that currently enriches privatised utility companies to the tune of £1,264 a year per household.

As in the Victorian and post-war eras, we have an acute housing crisis that can’t be solved by the market. The solution is to rediscover the best traditions of public intervention, but learn the lessons of the past and produce a new generation of well-designed, energy efficient, secure, affordable, publicly-owned council homes. We can’t afford not to.


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