I am pretty sure that many Inside Housing readers will have seen the recent BBC 4 programme The great estate: The rise and fall of the council house. If not, then try to get hold of a copy of the film. It was BBC 4 at its best: a very well made, affectionate history of council housing, from its origins in Shoreditch, east London, to its current, almost marginalised state. Critically, the programme provided real insight into the way healthy communities can be built and nurtured.
What I found really striking was the changing attitudes on offer towards council housing. More specifically, it was the shifting views held by working people from the immediate post-war era through to the late seventies and right up to the present day. It was depressing stuff.
My own constituency includes part of the vast Becontree housing estate, which featured in the programme. Almost 30,000 homes were built by the London County Council through the mid 1920s and into the early 1930s. From the start, the estate was inhabited by working people from all sorts of backgrounds sharing a common life and community. All those jargon terms used today - of community capacity, sustainable communities and the rest - could be seen to be naturally thriving at that time. It was not very long ago, but is a world away from today.
The council housing in Becontree contained rented homes occupied by doctors and some of the most senior managers at the Ford Motor assembly plant recently opened in Dagenham. They worked and lived alongside a vivid cross section of the labour force. The estate was a genuine mix of people with different income levels and it enjoyed a period of contented stability.
It would be very easy, and I think probably lazy, to attribute the changing perceptions and indeed the downfall of council housing to the Thatcher government’s right to buy policy. It is a more complicated story. I am in no doubt that right to buy played its part in this, but I suspect other profound trends were shaping public attitudes and impacting within the estates. As the social housing supply and demand equation became ever more unbalanced and, as a consequence, only those with needs were rehoused by councils and housing associations, the perception of this tenure changed. As this redrawing of the market continued over time, estates became places where households with average level incomes no longer lived. Starker concentrations of poverty developed, not least because of more persistent patterns of worklessness and family breakdown. Particularly so for high density, flatted estates where there had been little right to buy activity.
Into this downward cycle we now have the prospect of the coalition government’s plans to end security of tenure for council and housing association lettings. It seems pretty clear to me that this will have - yet again - a severe, negative impact in terms of stable communities. In short, it will put jump leads on the forces that undermine the sense of community, home building and pride of place. I just do not understand how these housing policies sit with the rhetoric of the ‘big society’ from the government. It flies in the face of what we know people yearn for; a sense of home and identity, belonging and security.
These pressures work alongside another marked trend in London and other cities: the growth in demand for rented housing from working households. With no access to social homes, these people, who tend to be young and not long ago would have been looking to homeownership, are going into the private rented sector. It may be that this is a temporary aberration reflecting the difficulty would-be first-time buyers now face. I doubt this. Instead this could be the start of a more fundamental re-appraisal. A shift in conventional wisdom that housing was more about generating personal wealth than seeking a good quality place to live.
If this does mark a shift away from homeownership then it is quite possible that the Homes and Communities Agency’s new affordable rent product may provide an option of good quality and well-managed homes for this group of people.
My own council at Barking & Dagenham has caught onto this. With partners on its own land, it is looking to develop new housing schemes which include a proportion at target social rent to help address traditional housing need. Such ideas could develop into something really substantial. The economics stack up as the remainder of units are to be released at rents ranging up to 80 per cent of the local market level. This then opens up the possibility to working people - who have had no chance in recent years of accessing affordable housing of high quality - of living in new homes at rents significantly less than those being paid to private landlords.
Thinking back to the BBC4 programme and the really positive aspects in the history of council housing, just maybe if councils and housing associations seize the moment and look for innovative solutions, all is not lost. I fear, however, the present policy mix will reinforce the sense that council housing will continue to be - in the wretched word so liked by policy makers - ‘residualised’. The idea that ‘we are all in this together’ is just spin; a world away from the day-to-day realities on our estates. It remains a sad story of British post-war history.
Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham