Defend council housing / FRFI 206 Dec 2008 / Jan 2009

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FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

Housing is becoming the bellwether of economic recession in Britain as well as in the United States. In Britain, the number of repossessions of privately-owned houses is rising rapidly as unemployment grows and falling house prices leave owners with negative equity. The already massive shortage of council housing is fast becoming a desperate crisis for working class people who have the choice of poor quality, often overcrowded conditions at inflated prices in the private sector or homelessness. Now is the time to invest massively in council housing and affordable good quality private housing to meet the needs of the working class. Instead the Labour government is, at best, dragging its feet, looking for more ways to ration council housing and ignoring the needs of millions of badly housed and homeless families.

In the lead-up to the issuing of a government Green Paper on housing, promised for early 2009, Housing Minister Margaret Beckett has been considering proposals from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH, representing housing officials) which argue for an end to security of tenure for council tenants. This right to stay in your own home was won in 1979 through national campaigning by council tenants following reforms in the private sector. The CIH report Rethinking Housing suggests that there should be means tests for council tenants, and periodic reviews of tenants’ financial situations. Should their income exceed a certain level, they should either pay a higher rent or be ‘encouraged’ to move into the private sector. Another report by the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a New Labour think tank, also recommends putting an end to secure tenancies, setting market-level rents and even proposes forcing elderly council tenants to leave their homes once their children have grown up.

Currently there are four million people (1.6 million households) on waiting lists for council housing; this will grow to five million people by 2010. In the poorest areas one in five people is on a waiting list. With only 170,000 council houses becoming available each year the situation is set to rapidly worsen. Between 1997 and 2006, local authorities built a mere 1,728 houses; in the same period the number completed by registered social landlords (housing associations etc) averaged 16-17,000 a year. According to the homelessness charity Crisis, there are 800,000 homeless people in Britain at any point in time. Further pressure will come from those whose houses are repossessed as they fall behind on mortgage repayments: an estimated 45,000 households in 2008 and rising.

Earlier in 2008, Beckett’s predecessor as housing minister, Caroline Flint, suggested that security of tenure for the unemployed should depend on them looking for work. It shows that the instinct of the Labour government is always to find ways of punishing the poor and making life for working class people harder and harder. We need to expose this government’s tricks and campaign to defend and expand council housing. It is the most basic human right that everyone should have decent, secure housing.

Mark Moncada