116 years ago today, the Prince of Wales stood near the bandstand at Arnold Circus and officially opened the new Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green. There had been isolated examples of municipal house building before, but this was the first large-scale council estate – 1,000 homes with schools, shops, public baths, laundries and other facilities that underlined the intention of both clearing slums and creating a lasting social, as well as a domestic, environment. As with every other urban regeneration project before and since, there were negative aspects – higher rents, social (and some ethnic) profiling, paternalism and displacement. But a walk around the Boundary today, still council housing despite several attempts at privatisation, is testament to an enduring vision that we need to rekindle and re-cast.
In the shadow of the Housing and Planning Bill that seeks to eliminate it, we need to not only defend council housing, but advocate for it. Against the background of decades of systematic under-investment and denigration, that’s difficult. However magnificent the Boundary estate may be, it doesn’t necessarily connect with a generation who have only seen council housing in stigmatised decline, except as a reminder of another place they can’t live. Appealing to a nostalgic image of council housing’s heyday isn’t enough. I have no doubt that if the 9 million (and rising) people forced into the super-exploitation of the private rented sector were offered the choice of a decent, secure, affordable council home, most would take it. The Housing and Planning Bill moves such a possibility even further away. But to make a case for council housing requires us to reflect on some of its short-comings, as well as successes and use its special qualities to appeal to those who are currently victims of the housing crisis, but don’t see an alternative.
Earlier this week, someone said to me that we need a ‘Big Idea’ for housing. I don’t quite agree. There isn’t a single solution, although in the context of the rampant commodification of shelter, council housing is a pretty big idea. But treating it as a one-size fits all policy was part of the road to decline. Representations of council housing as monolithic in form and substance are often self-servingly exaggerated, but allowing its administration to become bureaucratically remote was a mistake in the past that could easily be avoided in the future. After 25 years working in the field, I have a few fundamental precepts born of experience and one is the importance of scale. I help look after a small estate alongside a dedicated (and resident) caretaker and handyperson. We make minimal use of sub-contractors, have a familiar relationship with most of the residents (although that’s increasingly difficult with the constant churn of short-term private tenants) and it works. The estate is also managed directly by a residents committee. I am not an uncritical proselytiser of tenant management, but I do believe in its underlying principle of devolving day-to-day decision making (including spending) to residents. Multiply the experience of this estate – and others like it – by all current and future council housing, combined with the economies of scale achieved by municipal, non-profit ownership and you have a basic formula for well managed, economically and socially sustainable homes and communities.
The missing part of the ‘sustainable’ triad is environmental and this is something that council housing is ideally placed to address. Domestic energy use generates 25% of CO2 emissions and previous tokenistic and gimmicky policies (combined with the self-interest of private energy companies) have generally failed to tackle the problem. Put simply, we can’t save the planet as individuals and our current housing policy is predicated on individualism and personal consumption. By contrast, council housing offers an opportunity to introduce community-wide energy saving measures, alongside a more collective attitude to our environment.
With these things in mind, it’s a shame to hear some people writing-off the future of council housing just at its moment of its greatest peril and need. I heard a senior spokesperson from Shelter doing this at a meeting at the House of Commons on Monday. Instead they offer a new and improved private rented sector, alongside benign housing associations (HAs). This position seems to be born of a combination of fatalism, naivety and a failure to understand the true nature of what big, corporate-culture HAs have become. Trusting our housing futures to the mercies of weakly regulated private landlords increasingly linked to global institutional investors is a folly that is already creating the conditions that led to the demand for council housing 116 years ago. As the letter signed by over 70 housing academics puts it, the Housing and Planning Bill will only act as an ‘accelerant’ to these forces.
Awareness is growing about the generational threat the Bill represents, not just to council housing, but to all aspects of housing policy and yet still there seems to be reticence in some quarters to getting fully involved in the campaign against it. Imagine if (instead of doing it by stealth) the government had introduced legislation to abolish the NHS within a decade. That’s the equivalent of what we’re facing, but as Aneurin Bevan said of the NHS, so we should think of council housing – it will exist for as long as people are prepared to fight for it.