30 years ago the Labour Housing Group, which had been founded in 1981, published its first book on housing policy. It was 200 pages of tightly-argued analysis split into 18 chapters, each with a specialist author, forged into a coherent whole by the editing of Christian Wolmar, now campaigning to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor. Although circumstances have changed dramatically since 1984 – mostly for the worse, it has to be said – much of it stands the test of time and there are still lessons that can be learned for today.
The launch of LHG and the book – Right to a Home – came at a depressing time for housing. The Tories had stolen the whole debate with the right to buy, putting Labour on the defensive. Housing had slipped down Labour’s agenda despite having been a quiet priority for the Wilson Government of the 70s (although much less so after the IMF fiasco in 1976). The aim of the book was to set out a new stance for Labour which also spoke powerfully about housing rights – but a completely different set of housing rights from the Tories.
The optimism of the 1970s – when it was widely believed that the housing problem was well on the way to being solved – gave way to Thatcher’s single-minded pursuit of home ownership. Then as now huge cuts in housing investment meant that progress was reversed in terms of affordable housebuilding and the renewal of our oldest housing areas. Public sector starts (Britain) fell from an average of 135,000 in the 1970s to 36,000 in 1981 – the watershed leading directly to our modern catastrophe. Homelessness grew and there was an emerging crisis in the heavy use of temporary accommodation – especially bed and breakfast hotels in London but everything including caravans around the country. Conditions in the private rented sector were deteriorating, with several terrible fires in multi-occupied houses. As some housing areas began to gentrify, evictions became more common as landlords looked to sell out.
The core of LHG’s argument was the principle of the right to a home – that everyone, irrespective of income or type of household should have a practical right to housing on a par with the accepted rights to health care and education. Arm in arm with this, housing subsidies should be redistributed away from those that already had good homes to those that did not, leading to greater fairness of housing costs in relation to people’s incomes. Recognising that the withering of the private rented sector was leading to two relatively rigid (in terms of access) sectors (public housing and home ownership), the case was made both for new intermediate forms of housing and for greater parity of esteem between the main housing sectors. ‘Whether people rent or buy their homes raises no issue of principle for socialists’ wrote David Griffiths, ‘A viable strategy has to move beyond a sterile confrontation between the tenures by accepting their long-term coexistence and seeking to ensure there is real choice between them’. We would be in a very different place today if that advice had been taken then.
The book considered housing issues comprehensively, making proposals in relation to the reform of land taxation and housing subsidies, a better system of house buying and selling, the role of housing associations, housing allocations, and new forms of co-operative tenure. It broke relatively new ground by looking in detail at the issues of racial equality and gender equality in relation to housing policy. In one area the crystal ball failed spectacularly: it talked about ‘the irreversible decline’ of private renting and the need to plan for the removal of the absentee landlord from the housing system.
In my own chapter, on Planning Housing Investment, one paragraph I wrote has stayed with me ever since, featuring regularly as an argument on Red Brick: ‘The monetary constraints on public housing investment are more imaginary than real. It is a nonsense to believe that an owner occupier borrowing money to buy a bigger house is somehow ‘good’ because it is a private activity, but that a council borrowing money, ultimately from the same sources, to build a new council house is an inflationary drain on national resources because it counts as part of the PSBR’. Indeed, it made clear that the latter was a much more beneficial use of loan finance because it boosted economic activity, led to a permanent income, and by reducing social security costs and increasing tax revenue it almost became cost neutral to the Treasury. Ed Balls please note.
In the week of his funeral, it is poignant to read again the chapter by Chris Holmes on ‘A Political Strategy’. He made the case for the central political demand to be for a Housing Rights Act ‘which enshrines the legal right to a home within a comprehensive charter of individual and collective rights including the enforcement of minimum standards, security against arbitrary eviction, involvement in decisions and redress against grievance’. He called for a ’vigorous attack on the acute inequalities which disfigure current housing provision’. And, true even more now than then, he concluded: ‘It would be naïve to under-estimate the difficulties of gaining political support for a genuinely socialist housing policy in the face of entrenched interests and deeply-ingrained conditioning…. We need new ideas but active support for a radical socialist housing strategy will only be won through campaigning.’
‘Right to a Home’ published by Spokesman, Labour Housing Group, 1984, written by Stewart Lansley, David Griffiths, Steve Hilditch, John Perry, Mike Gibson, Jane Darke, Bernard Kilroy, Tim Daniel, Richard Moseley, Nick Raynsford, Alan Simpson, Geoffrey Randall, Bert Provan, Tristan Wood, Selwyn Ward, Marion Brian, Christine Davies, Chris Holmes.