By guest blogger Monimbo
As well as being the catchy phrase that was evidently used on a 1945 Labour election poster, Let’s Build the Houses – Quick! is a new publication by Cathy Davis and Alan Wigfield from Spokesman Books. It looks at the failures of recent housing policy and calls for a massive new building programme from the next Labour government.
Red Brick readers will sympathise with the main line of argument, which is that Labour didn’t build enough social housing, the Tories are doing much worse still and the main component of a sensible housing policy should be to put that right.
The Davis/Wigfield assessment of Tory policy, and of the pernicious influence of ‘think tanks’ such as Localis – and of the Tory-sympathising housing association executives who helped them draft the policies now being pursued so enthusiastically - will also be familiar to Red Brick devotees.
Although the booklet acknowledges a belated change of direction by Gordon Brown towards increased investment in social housing, it is strongly critical of Labour’s reliance on housing associations and their undemocratic nature, and takes a resolutely municipalist line. It criticises Labour for introducing quasi-market practices such as Best Value, and gives little credit to Labour for its investment in decent homes (surely in housing terms the crowning achievement of the Blair/Brown governments?). It sees ALMOs as a precursor to privatisation, whose ‘fate’ is now in the hands of the Coalition (but isn’t it still in the hands of councils, as many have recently shown?).
I found no mention of self-financing for council housing, nor of the borrowing rules which disadvantage councils compared with housing associations, and which were a strong motivation for Labour’s reliance on associations to deliver new housing. Nor is there acknowledgement of the big advances in housing management performance or tenant involvement which Labour stimulated and which are now at risk.
The real problem I found with the Davis/Wigfield booklet lies not in their analysis of Labour’s shortcomings, or their prescriptions for a future Labour government, but in their very limited explanation of how their goals would be achieved and the obstacles overcome. For example, they see Gordon Brown’s ambition of building 50,000 social homes per year as a minimum, and most of the total as needing to be built by councils. But this would inevitably lead to increased public borrowing, unless sensible changes were made to spending rules. At the same time they want a big retrofit programme to raise the energy efficiency of social housing – another highly desirable goal, but one which will compete with new build for the available funding.
In private renting, they want to establish security of tenure and rent regulation, and restore housing benefit cuts. Again, laudable objectives, but surely we need to work out how to achieve them without scaring off private landlords who are currently the major growth sector in the housing market?
In the period before the next election, we need to encourage a plethora of progressive ideas that might be considered for inclusion in Labour’s programme for government. We need the equivalent for progressive policy of the ideas produced by Localis and other right wing think tanks, many of which have (regrettably) turned out to be all too practicable.
‘Let’s build the houses – Quick!’ puts some markers down, but if we are to develop a programme that a new government can deliver, ideas like these will have to be argued through in much more detail.