One of the unique qualities of council housing is how it creates an automatic relationship between people and politics. In an era when there is increasing concern about ‘the democratic deficit’ and voter apathy, council tenants have been described as ‘special citizens’ because they have preserved a degree of collective, democratic control over where they live. Public assets have been stripped almost naked in this country since 1979. Our utilities, and chunks of our transport, education and (by stealth) health services have been flogged off, sometimes with a roar of opposition, but often only a whimper. By contrast, council tenants around the UK have fought – and often defeated – the privateers. In a David v Goliath struggle that has largely gone unnoticed by the mainstream media, tenants on hundreds of council estates have been able to vote ‘No’ to their homes being taken over by pseudo-social landlords, thus exercising precisely the democratic power that those who have voted ‘Yes’ lose when they stop being council tenants. I was once asked by the tenant of a housing association I was working for what he could do to change the organisation’s policy. The answer was – and remains – ‘Nothing’.
Despite the resistance, the ‘stock transfer’ process started by Thatcher and continued with gusto by New Labour constitutes the biggest appropriation of land and property since the dissolution of the monasteries, but the almost two million council tenants that remain still have the ability to take real decisions about their homes. I went to a meeting recently at which two dozen tenants from a dozen estates came together on a wet Tuesday evening to discuss and allocate a budget for improvement projects in their neighbourhood. This wasn’t a sham ‘consultation’ exercise, but a conversation about real problems, with real money (their money) to try and address them. Public servants were there to offer advice, but the decisions were taken by tenants and what was striking was the balance between the concerns of individual estates and a wider sense of responsibility for the area as a whole. One of the perennial criticisms of council housing is that it establishes political thiefdoms and nurtures ‘pork barrel’ politics, as though such things don’t exist elsewhere. A more positive reading would recognise the potential of such collective decision-making as a genuine expression of the ‘sustainable communities’ that are the holy grail of public policy.
Some critics are blind to the democratic power of council housing, others see it all too clearly. Stripped of the political and policy rhetoric, the real reason the establishment and its lackeys don’t like council housing is their innate sense of their own superiority and hostility to public services in general (they don’t want to pay for them), but also a deeper fear of working class people taking decisions without them, as part of a non-property owning democracy! These anxieties collide in the form of council housing.
This is what democracy looks like!