WHEN writing his acclaimed new history of council housing, Municipal Dreams, John Boughton decided that attempting to reach north of the border would be “a bridge too far.”
It was not worth doing in this volume, Boughton said at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week, because he could not give Scotland “the respectful coverage it deserves.”
But Scotland, Boughton says, is in fact offering some of the most encouraging signs of dissent to housing policy orthodoxy — from the abolition of right to buy to the growth of grassroots campaigns like Living Rent.
“In a fairly hostile environment, there’s a lot of progressive and positive housing politics emerging,” he told me after his talk at the festival on Monday.
He also cites the resistance to estate demolitions in London and the Right to the City campaigns in the US.
“Hopefully this will come together as a political demand for housing as a human right.”
He says Scotland is offering “some pretty ambitious council housebuilding programmes” compared to England, with “an overall target of 50,000 genuinely affordable homes and some 30,000 social-rent homes.”
But the speed of market forces leaves a lot of catching up to do.
“We’re in the situation of celebrating baby steps,” he concedes. “35,000 social rent homes in Scotland is clearly on a small scale compared to both need and historical record. Even at the last election, housing didn’t have the prominence it requires.”
Boughton’s book, which came out of his respected Municipal Dreams blog, sets out to present an alternative history of Britain using social housing as its periscope.
Though the estates he asks us to reappraise are geographically far from the schemes of Glasgow, many offer a similar history of high ambition followed by rampant neglect.
Scottish Labour’s consultation on its proposed pro-tenant Mary Barbour law, which was announced yesterday, comes after a sharp rise in the number of private renters.
And while they need protection and empowerment, it’s clear that the market needs to be rebalanced once again — away from the slum landlordism that Barbour, who led the 1916 rent strike, fought against.
The fact that Serco holds the contract for housing Glasgow’s asylum-seekers — brought to light in recent weeks by the outsourcing giant’s plans to evict large numbers of them — is yet another facet of this sorry saga.
Any proper upheaval of the housing market must surely address refugees’ human right to decent shelter, as well as that of the settled population.
Boughton believes the growth in private renting is leading to a “growing realisation that social housing does represent a really important part of a functioning housing market across the board.”
And that, he says, is cause for optimism. “I think the politics will shift.”
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