Birmingham Post

Candidates will be homing in on a growing council priority

- Chris Game Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

IF you’re an academic – either a genuine intellectu­al, theorising one, or a more lecturing, popularisi­ng one like me – there’s a good chance that the week before Easter is Conference Week.

It’s easy to mock, and knock, academic conference­s. Too many delegates reading, rather than ‘presenting’, their papers; no time for proper interrogat­ion, discussion and debate; mediocre university campus food. And for overseas conference­s, add in all those sinful carbon emissions.

However, I like them – and indeed this Easter week I racked up a full half-century of attending, at least intermitte­ntly, PSA (Political Studies Associatio­n) conference­s.

Like most such events nowadays, this one was ‘hybrid’ – with panels attended partly in person by attendees like me, partly digitally via Zoom.

Which makes genuine discussion additional­ly problemati­c, and emphasises the importance of the written papers addressing subjects that ideally are appealing, topical and even newsworthy.

Happily, in the Local Politics Specialist Group this is frequently the case – and this year one paper especially struck me as both sufficient­ly important and timely to justify bothering you with it.

Timely because we’re fast approachin­g the May 5 local council elections, and, if these councils’ controllin­g parties choose to draw voters’ attention to it, many could claim something they’d not have been able to even four years ago when these same seats were last collective­ly contested.

Over four in every five could claim that they are genuinely and actively involved in the business of delivering social housing.

And if that doesn’t grab you, and you’re thinking: “well, isn’t that one of the main things councils are supposed to do?” – or maybe you’ve heard of the 4,000-plus homes built by the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust and assume that it’s fairly typical, rather than exceptiona­l – then I politely suggest you’ve rather lost the

plot in recent years.

When I used to lecture to particular­ly overseas students about housing in England or the UK, I’d use a very basic graph showing the changing relative importance of the main housing tenures since 1919 – private rented, owner occupied, local authority, and housing associatio­n.

At the end of WWI, the ‘big picture’ was straightfo­rward: roughly 90% of housing stock was privately rented, 10% owner occupied. Councils were empowered to build ‘corporatio­n housing’, but few did.

The War changed everything. PM Lloyd George promised not just houses, but “Homes Fit for Heroes’, and the 1919 Addison Act facilitate­d it. Council housing committees sprung up, generous subsidies were provided, and council estates mushroomed.

By 1939 10% of the population lived in council houses, and the numbers increased post-war, with the Labour Government’s Town and Country Planning and New Towns Acts.

At their 1950s peak, under Conservati­ve Government­s, councils were building nearly 200,000 houses a year – one completion every three minutes, if you were wondering.

By the 1970s over a third of England’s housing stock was ‘council.’

Private renting had plummeted to below 20%, with owner occupation over 50% and rising, and housing associatio­ns just beginning to take off.

The 1980s Thatcher Government­s’ priorities, though, were very different: a “property-owning democracy”, with successive ‘Right to Buy’ policies – requiring, rather than allowing, councils to sell off their housing stock, if tenants, particular­ly of larger, betterqual­ity properties, wished to purchase.

Coupled with Treasury restrictio­ns on councils borrowing money for capital expenditur­e, there began the long-term shift from council housing to housing associatio­ns: from 7% of all social housing in 1980 to over 60% today, including virtually all new

social housing.

On the ‘new build’ version of my housing stock graph the ‘local authority’ line by the mid-1990s was barely distinguis­hable from the horizontal x-axis. Council house building on any significan­t scale virtually stopped, new homes countable in the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands.

Private renting obviously increased, but housing associatio­ns or ALMOs (Arm’s-Length Management Organisati­ons), rather than councils, became responsibl­e for both building and managing virtually all new social housing.

Sales meanwhile averaged well over 100,000 a year, re-boosted by increased discounts from the Coalition Government following the 2007/8 financial crisis.

That same Coalition – or its Treasury – also imposed tightly restrictiv­e ‘caps’ on councils’ ability to borrow against their own Housing Revenue Accounts in order to build affordable homes.

True, the 2011 Localism Act and other changes gradually empowered councils to work both like and with private sector companies. But it was really only when, several years later, Theresa May announced to her October 2018 Party Conference that

she would ‘ditch the cap’ that councils’ widespread re-engagement with housing provision seriously took off.

There were and still are significan­t hurdles: tenants’ right to buy, planning constraint­s, the need for more grant funding.

But the climate has indisputab­ly changed, and at least some of the circulatin­g local election manifestos will contain the evidence.

The reason I’m so confident of this is that one of the York conference sessions I attended was presented by Bartlett School of Planning’s Professor Janice Morphet, a colleague who has been systematic­ally and repeatedly surveying councils’ engagement in the provision of affordable housing.

And a key finding has been that in the past few years councils’ direct engagement in provision of particular­ly affordable housing “has moved from a marginal to a mainstream and prioritise­d issue” – the proportion reporting a direct engagement in provision up from barely 60% just four years ago to at least 80%.

Who said academic conference­s are an indulgent waste of time?

The proportion reporting a direct engagement in provision up from barely 60% just four years ago to at least 80%

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 ?? ?? > The landscape changed when Theresa May ditched the ‘cap’ on councils’ ability to borrow against their own Housing Revenue Accounts to build affordable homes
> The landscape changed when Theresa May ditched the ‘cap’ on councils’ ability to borrow against their own Housing Revenue Accounts to build affordable homes

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