The Daily Telegraph
Mrs May’s views on council houses ignore the basic Tory tenets of personal aspiration and pride
Theresa May yesterday criticised or sneered at house builders, letting agents, landlords and managing agents. She talked of certain house builders which “dodge” their obligations. Her only reference to landlords was preceded by the word “rogue”. Some managing agents had been “unscrupulous”. She managed to get in a derogatory mention of the profit motive along the way.
Meanwhile she had nothing but praise and encouraging words for state-controlled housing, housing associations and tenants of council homes. She approvingly quoted some unnamed person who had suggested that the rise of social housing in Britain had been “the biggest collective leap in living standards in British history”. She wanted more of it and of higher quality. She wanted social housing indistinguishable from private housing – so good that people would be “proud to call it their home”.
It is as if she has not seen or understood any of the important things that have happened in British housing in the past 70 or 80 years. It is as if she does not grasp what being a Conservative means.
Does she really expect people to be as proud of a home which is subsidised by other people as they would be of one which they struggled and saved to buy over 20 or 30 years? That is fantasyland psychology. Nor is it fair that people who worked and saved should find themselves next door to someone in an equally ample home who never made such sacrifices.
She has the perfectly good intention to be kind. But she does not understand what Margaret Thatcher so firmly grasped: that the less welloff do not want kindness. They want opportunity – the chance to improve their lot through their own efforts. They want the independence that buying a home creates.
Tenants of the state are at the mercy of the state. They are not allowed to make significant alterations. They are building up no capital. They cannot legally sub-let. If they want to move to another town, it will be difficult or impossible to get a similar property. They are trapped. This is Big Brother world. That is why Mrs Thatcher brought in the Right to Buy for council tenants. They at last overcame these limitations and often celebrated by painting their front doors in the colours they wanted instead of the council-imposed colour. Mrs Thatcher said: “If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it.”
Yes, “individual freedom”. That is a bit of Conservatism that Mrs May seems to have trouble with. She has it herself, of course. But being a Conservative means wanting it for everybody and wanting a private home for everyone who wants one. It is about personal aspiration and pride – not a false pride of receiving a gift from a condescending government.
Her knowledge of housing history is weak. Aneurin Bevan, the postwar Labour minister responsible for housing, like Mrs May, wanted to build top-quality council homes. But it takes more money and land to build at that standard. Bevan’s policy resulted in a disappointing number of homes being built. So a modest number of people got good homes but the needs of hundreds of thousands of others were not satisfied. Fewer homes were built than after the First World War. After that, governments started building tower blocks to accommodate people more cheaply. That was a disaster. Many were vandalised and became ghettos of crime. Hundreds of council estates consisting of two or more tower blocks were demolished because no one wanted to live in them.
For these and other reasons, social housing has been in decline as a proportion of all housing for the past 40 years. The process continued uninterrupted under Tony Blair’s government because it had become obvious that social housing did not work. And this has been the experience around the world. Germany, America and Australia have all seen significant drops in the proportion of social housing. Go online and you can watch the demolition of the Carpendeguy estate in France or the vast Pruitt Igoe estate in America.
Mrs May showed yesterday that she does not grasp the extent of the housing crisis and how inadequate her little measures are to meet it. The cost of buying a flat or house is now far too high in relation to incomes. This is not because of builders or letting agents or any of the rest. It is government that is to blame for our housing crisis. The planning system is not fit for purpose. It does not allow for the building of lots of homes in places and in styles that people are happy about. It is all about the cost of land with permission to build. The demand is there but the supply is constrained by a planning system dating back to the post-war Labour government. If Mrs May seriously wanted to tackle the problem, she would send researchers to Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere to analyse the superior systems there.