“Council housing? It’s not for us.”

I heard this in my local coffee bar this morning. It was an exchange between two people in their 20s, one of whom I know lives in the type of sub-standard private renting many of her generation are now condemned to. They were looking at a near-completion block of what our council is referring to as new council housing. If that sounds a bit sceptical, it’s only because there are some questions about this type of development, particularly whether the rents are in line with those of existing council homes. But in general, it’s great to see Tower Hamlets and other councils, finally seeing the point of the unique form of housing in their name, that they have spent far too long undermining and disowning.

There are still huge steps to take before we recover the ground lost by 40 years of neoliberal housing policy. Most of them concern finance and how we make the case that direct investment in new and existing council housing is a better use of public money than the myriad privatisation devices that have been tried and – on the whole – failed. But alongside the “hard” economics and politics, there’s some ideological damage to repair, before council housing is restored to its rightful place.

I’ve heard variations on the “it’s not for us” sentiment several times in recent years. I remember one person, who was homeless, saying in a meeting “my mum was brought up in council housing, but I’ve been lucky”. On another occasion, I heard someone say “I’ve been in and out of council housing all my life”, as though referring to prison. The saddest thing about this is that, in both cases, they were people in their 20s, like those I heard this morning.

Somehow, those of us who believe in publicly-owned, not-for-profit, rented housing, need to find a way to convince the younger generation that council housing can enhance their lives in the way it did previous generations. Referring to a sepia-tinted past doesn’t go far, although when I tell my students that a third of the UK population were council tenants in 1979, it still blows their minds. But we need to connect an idea that flourished in the 20th century with the concerns of the 21st.

An obvious and immediate way of doing that is making the intrinsic link between housing and the “cost of living crisis”. It’s a truth, that has only slowly dawned on me, that we have arrived at a state where housing causes poverty. For millions, rapidly rising rents (in all sectors), poor insulation, benefit cuts, transience, rip-off fees and service charges all contribute to making the cost of living, effectively, the cost of housing. It was not ever thus. When the UK had a robust alternative to the rapacious market (and actually, even before then) housing as a proportion of household income consumed about half what it does now.  

Beyond the hard cash questions, there are the more amorphous “quality of life” arguments we need to re-make for council housing. Despite the decades of denigration and under-investment, many current and former council tenants already know how a truly affordable rent and a secure tenancy can transform lives. I’m sometimes reminded of a line from US public housing: “The only people who like it are the people who live there”. But more tangibly, I think of my stepdaughter, living as a council tenant in the home she was raised in, now a single parent and a highly qualified nurse, working in the local community she’s always lived in. As well as a few other things, council housing makes all that possible.  

Standing on UCU picket lines recently, I’ve heard numerous people – some of them on higher wages than a nurse – saying that living in the community they work in is a financial non-starter, with all the wasteful commuting and social detachment that impossibility entails. When Aneurin Bevan envisaged council housing as the means towards “the living tapestry of a mixed community” where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer all lived in the same street” he wasn’t waxing rhetorical. Today, we might add: “The teacher, the fire fighter, the ambulance driver and rail worker not spending hours of time, hundreds of pounds and tonnes of carbon getting to and from work”.  

Council housing doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it should be there for everyone.

New Council Housing: Corner of Roman Road and Globe Road, E2

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