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The future of council housing: it’s time to speak up

EILEEN SHORT, of Defend Council Housing, and Dr GLYN ROBBINS report on a crucial all-party parliamentary group inquiry into council housing that’s currently seeking members of the public to have their say

MPs HAVE launched an inquiry into the future of council housing. The inquiry, by the all-party parliamentary group for council housing, chaired by Matt Western MP, was launched to a packed room of tenants and housing groups, councillors, trade unions, and MPs in July and is now gathering steam with events across Britain.

The terms of reference include collecting evidence on how local authorities are coping with trying to meet ever-increasing housing need with ever-dwindling resources, and hearing from tenants about disrepair, overcrowding and other day-to-day realities, alongside the importance of council housing in their lives.

The background to this is rising rents and evictions that have “left areas that did not have a significant problem with homelessness suddenly confronting soaring numbers of people with nowhere to live,” as the Financial Times reported (September 19). The chickens of 40 years of underinvestment in council housing are coming home to roost. 

So far, local evidence sessions led by tenant and community organisations, councils and others, and supported by Defend Council Housing and a team of academics, have been held in Islington, Southwark and Rochdale, with others planned in Exeter, Bristol, Manchester, Lancaster, Luton, Leeds and Reading.

Rochdale graphically illustrates the scale and nature of the problem. In 2012, having previously set up an arms-length management organisation that should have enabled investment in council housing without wholesale privatisation, the borough transferred its 13,644 council homes and a significant amount of public land to a form of housing association, Rochdale Boroughwide Homes (RBH).

In the birthplace of the co-op movement, RBH made great play on its non-profit, community-friendly ethos. But as with some other “social landlords,” words and deeds didn’t always match. 

In 2017, plans were announced to demolish 720 former council homes on the College Bank estate, with no guarantees about what would replace them. In the face of fierce opposition from residents, the plans have now been shelved. 

But all over the country, such projects are leading to the loss of thousands of homes for social rent, causing lasting damage to local communities.

In 2022, a coroner’s court found that RBH negligence had contributed to the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a mould- and damp-ridden flat. 

The outcry drew attention to a culture of contempt overseen by senior executives on six-figure salaries, while tenants struggle to get basic repairs done. The government was compelled to intervene, in the shape of the Social Housing Regulations Act (2023).  

But it made no firm commitments to level the playing field between public money invested in social rented homes and the billions of pounds subsidising the failing private market.

The Rochdale APPG evidence session heard Cllr Danny Meredith, lead member for housing, spell out the consequences of national housing policy at local level. 

Applications for the housing register have almost doubled to 9,670 households (23,403 people) since 2016, roughly the entire population of the nearby town of Heywood.

In the same period, the number of available social rented homes has almost halved. There are 67 families in substandard bed and breakfast and the council spends £2 million a year on temporary accommodation. 

But as RBH tenant Andy Roache said, there are enough empty homes on the estate where he lives to house them all. 

Meredith related another facet of the housing state we’re in with reference to his dad, a pensioner with a private landlord, whose rent has gone from £450 a month in 2014, to £950 a month now. 

Housing policy is now a key driver of poverty.

Rochdale clearly demonstrates that housing need is a national problem and the APPG inquiry wants to hear from as many places as possible, before it reports in the spring. 

A similar exercise in 2007 found that various forms of privatisation were bad value for public money. That conclusion has been vindicated, but it’s essential once again to make a case for direct investment in council housing. 

Another aim of the inquiry is to record some of the obstacles to building the homes we need, including re-establishing council housing in places like Rochdale, that currently no longer have any. 

Within that, the future of right to buy is a critical question. It’s a subject that came up at the Islington session. 

Local tenant Jenny Kassman said: “Ending right to buy is urgent,” but she also drew attention to the ongoing practice of housing associations in London selling off social rented homes at auction. 

The evidence sessions have also raised the wider issues, beyond policy and finance. Several people have talked about how having access to council housing has changed their lives for the better.

At the Southwark meeting, Fatima said: “I’ve lived in council housing all my life, but things have got worse. There’s a lack of respect for tenants. There needs to be a change of attitudes. Doing that doesn’t cost billions of pounds.”

The situation in Rochdale has become so severe that Meredith is planning to declare a housing state of emergency. 

Perhaps other councils will follow? It is clear a bad situation is getting worse and only a national campaign demanding a change of direction will prevent a future of relentless housing misery. 

There are many issues to discuss, but one thing the inquiry is determined to reject is the fallacy that there’s no money. Unaffordable rents lead to the government spending £25 billion a year (and rising) on housing benefit. 

The Help to Buy scheme, which has done very little to reduce housing need, has cost another £25bn. It’s not the case that we can’t afford to invest in council housing. We can’t afford not to.

If you would like to hold an evidence session for the APPG inquiry in your area, please contact [email protected]. You can also provide written evidence by writing to [email protected]. See bit.ly/APPGcouncilhousing for more details.

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