Think Tankers

Given the subject of this blog, I feel compelled to write something about the ‘new vision for housing’ unveiled by Policy Exchange (PE) on Monday.  I’m reluctant because it’s such arrant nonsense that it barely deserves a response, beyond a rant about a bunch of think tankers who, as my granddad used to say, ‘don’t know shit from almond rock’.

Although this piece of warmed-over neo-liberal drivel seems to have sunk without trace inside 48 hours, it’s worrying that the government’s initial response was to welcome it, but not surprising because it is broadly in-line with current Con/Dem thinking.  The essential argument is threefold:  one, that council/social housing in areas with high property values is ‘expensive’, two, that by selling it off as it becomes vacant, more affordable housing could be built elsewhere and three, that there is something unfair about poor people living in areas with high house prices.

Where to begin?  The intrinsic value of something doesn’t change because the value of those around it does, but herein lies the fundamental problem with neo-liberal thinking on housing and everything else – they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  What PE, the government and the property pimps who support them fail to understand is that council housing is a public asset not a private commodity.  As Defend Council Housing has quite rightly pointed out, the cost of most council housing has been paid for several times over and far from being subsidised by the tax payer, produces a net surplus that is siphoned off by the Treasury.

Council housing, such as that on the estate where I work, does not become more ‘expensive’ because it happens to be in an area where you can pay £1 million to live in a loft.  The management and maintenance costs don’t go up because the Barbican is down the road.  The fact that the Right to Buy has enabled some people to buy and sell council housing does not affect the financial cost of what remains in the rented stock, but it does become more socially valuable because of its scarcity.  On this estate, we currently have a four bedroom maisonette which a family of eight are due to move into, after a long time in temporary accommodation, at huge cost to the public purse.  Instead of providing this family with a decent, affordable home that meets their needs, PE would sell it off to the highest bidder, whereupon it would be sub-let at exorbitant rents, quite possibly impoverishing its new tenants, but making a property developer very rich.  The consequences for the estate would be another transient household with no long-term interest in the local community.  Meanwhile, the family denied an immediate council tenancy in the area they live, where their children attend schools, would wait for some mythical new housing to be built who knows where, who knows when, by who knows whom.  But the most insidious aspect of PE’s proposal – and one that is entirely consistent with current government policy – is an attempt to recreate urban areas in their own image.  Having abandoned the inner-cities when they were dirty, smelly and you couldn’t buy cappuccino, the wealthy now want to re-colonise them as neo-Medieval zones of privilege and exclusion, where the poor can work, but must live outside the gates.

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