Candidates will be homing in on a growing council priority
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
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%