It’s good that Ed Balls is talking about building 100,000 new ‘affordable’ homes. Pity he didn’t do something about it when Labour was in power, but better late than never. However, even allowing for conference grandstanding and the strong possibility that the money he’s talking about using will be gone when or if Balls enters number 11, there is a vital debate to be had about what is meant by ‘affordable’ housing.
One of the most insidious, but ideologically successful aspects of housing policy during the last three decades has been the dilution of the distinctions between the roles of councils and housing associations (HAs) and the almost universal adoption of the amorphous and misleading term ‘social’ housing. This has been part of a deliberate strategy on the part of government and others who are hostile to council housing, but it’s also a trap that many who oppose privatisation and neo-liberalism have fallen into.
The Thatcher government was absolutely explicit that it saw HAs as the secret agents for replacing and ultimately destroying council housing, partly because they were imbued with a fluffy, cuddly image born of their charitable and faintly radical origins. The elevation of HAs – later Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), now Registered Providers (RPs) – was bank-rolled up-front with public money and the transfer of public assets, but was also contingent upon an increasing role for private finance, which in turn was conditional on a form of tenure (Assured Tenancies) that was weaker than that enjoyed by council tenants (Secure Tenancies). This basic strategy has remained unchanged by all governments since and has led to an increasingly commercialised culture within HAs who, despite maintaining a pretense of being ‘non profit’ operate as independent businesses with many of the corporate trappings, including inflated executive salaries and fancy offices. Moreover, HAs have no mechanisms for direct democratic accountability either to their own tenants, or to the wider communities in which they operate.
Existing in a virtual criticism-free zone, HAs have been able to create a fiction around the nature of ‘affordable’ housing. HA rents are higher than council rents and attempts to close the gap have been kicked into the long grass under pressure from the increasingly assertive HA lobby and the over-riding pressure to maintain their covenants with lenders. This accumulating financial pressure is reflected in aggressive development strategies that have become detached from the housing needs of the areas HAs work in. Under the rhetorical cover of ‘choice’ allied to the bogus concept of ‘mixed communities’, HAs have become increasingly reliant on various shared ownership ‘products’ targeting those unable to afford a full mortgage and blithely accepted by politicians and supine planning authorities as ‘affordable’ housing, a term that is to undergo even greater distortion with the advent of new ‘affordable rents’ – a Con/Dem policy that will enable HAs to charge tenants up to 80% of the market level.
All of this matters if we are to see a revival of government-sponsored house building. In addition to their other short-comings and despite a prolonged place in the policy sun, HAs have consistently failed to deliver the number of new homes needed to meet demand, partly because they are unable to transcend the institutional inadequacies of the private development industry of which they are increasingly a part. Ed Balls and anyone else who wants to see a genuine solution to our housing crisis needs to stop being mealy-mouthed and talk about the real thing – COUNCIL HOUSING!