A few days ago, Ed MIliband gave a speech that the former Labour minister Frank Field said was his first step in setting out a new “position for the next election”.
In his speech, Miliband focused on council housing – or can we only call it social housing now? – setting out how people who work or volunteer should get priority on council house waiting lists so as to be able to jump the queue ahead of those such as benefits claimants. Miliband added how the policy was aiming to reward those who “give something back”.
In his speech Miliband stressed that he was outlining his vision on “fairness”:
“One area where people’s sense of fairness is under threat is social housing. There is a terrible shortage of social housing in this country”
He went on:
“It will be one of the key tests of the next Labour government that we address this issue. But we also need to do so in a way that commands public support and respect. Need is, and will remain, a crucial test of who gets a house”
The ‘need is’ for Miliband to clearly mimic Tory rhetoric and covertly separate the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ as the solution to the problem.
This of course is far from being either the solution or the problem.
The problem is that we do not build – and indeed have not built – enough council housing since the 1980s and as I have posted about on this blog before, this was a consequence of the Thatcherite policy of ‘Right to Buy’:
What happened thirty years ago is that estates were deemed to be in an absolutely terrible condition and the best way or one of the best ways in order to sort that out in one way was to bring in the Right to Buy. So a lot of the better paid people on estates – and that obviously is people in secure full time work – bought their houses you know and started doing them up with their own money. That led to a really, really reduced number of council properties available for local authorities and so they started prioritising purely on the basis of need.
And how it eventually panned out is that council housing became a place where you overwhelmingly were unlikely to be in secure well paid work, you were overwhelmingly likely to qualify for some means tested benefit, you were overwhelmingly more likely to have difficulties with schooling and relationships and with just generally sort of getting a hold on all the sorts of things that make you feel as though you are sort of progressing with your life and doing well in your life.
And that last point is key: if you own your home post-Thatcher, then you are seen to be doing well but if you live or need council housing, you’re seen to be quite the opposite. ‘Right to Buy’ therefore stratified housing not only on the basis of class, but also on perceptions and attitudes relating to success and progress. Society subsequently deemed those who did not own property to be failures and to be little more than ‘scrounging’ off the State.
The solution then is not to further differentiate or reinforce the constructed notions of who is and who isn’t ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ but to withdraw the ‘Right to Buy’ and invest in a sustained campaign to build more council houses.
That is what the real ‘need is’.
That is what will be fair. That is what will address the shortage. And that is what will command the support and respect of those sections of the public who are affected by this problem.