In this programme, author and journalist Michael Collins reviewed the history of council housing and interviewed some of the people whose lives were shaped by it. He presented it as a social experiment with a legacy of failure, and described the vision of “council housing for all” as “utopian”. The programme nonetheless went some way to redressing Tory and right-wing denigration.
Before the great council house building programme of the 1945-51 Labour government, “the slum landlord” was king; most working-class people lived in hovels, often paid exorbitant rents, and had no security of tenure. Local authority housing changed this, and proved to be the most efficient and effective way of giving people a decent place to live, which all socialists believe everyone should have as a right. If it has a legacy of failure this is due not to any inherent defect in the system but to the relentless Tory onslaught against it.
The Tories have always hated council housing. To them housing is a commodity to be sold for maximum profit, and nothing boosts profits more than shortage and desperation.
Thatcher began her offensive against local authority housing by virtually ending the building of new housing and by introducing “right to buy”. That was never about extending home ownership; it was about reducing the stock of council housing.
After an initial spurt in which tenants living in the best and most modern street properties bought their homes, the “buying” dried up. So tenants were coerced into buying by draconian rent rises.
When Thatcher was first elected, council rents might have been about 10% of a typical working-class household’s earned income. Today they could be as much as 50% (e.g. a rent of £100 a week for a two bedroom flat could be the equivalent of half a week’s wages). This is one reason why expenditure on housing benefits is so high!
Tory policies have meant the return of the slum landlord, but on a far greater scale. Estate agents and property companies have acquired vast amounts of council property which they then sell or rent for a huge profit. In Inner London you can have a council flat on an estate with a rent of £100 a week, and an identical flat next door which an estate agent got for a song and now charges £400 a week rent for.
The new Tory government plans the final end of social housing — by capping housing benefits and forcing council rents up to 80% of market levels, and the proposed ending of security of tenure. Legislation to bring in those changes is now going through Parliament. It will mean forcing council tenants out of their homes “if their circumstance improve.” It will mean a massive increase in homelessness, and will cause appalling suffering and hardship. To the Tories this is good all for business.
By cataloguing these changes the programme showed how council housing dramatically improved the lives of millions.