COMMENT: George Clarke certainly whipped up a storm on Channel 4 last night, with his rather luminous programme to celebrate 100 years of council housing “George Clarke’s Council House Scandal”. In a brilliant piece of television scheduling, this was screened on the very centenary of the passing of the Addison Act, named after Dr Christopher Addison, health minister and “Homes for Heroes” hero, who had radically grasped in 1919 that decent housing would do more for the health of this nation than any other single measure.
Mr Clarke is to be seriously congratulated on his timely intervention. He is making a huge impact in the fraught debate surrounding our housing crisis. Aside from shining a spotlight onto a lamentable problem, he’s calling for two things: the first is that government should implement measures that will lead to the building of 100,000 council houses each year. The second is the “suspension” of Right to Buy in England (it has already ceased in both Scotland and Wales).
Well, you certainly can’t fault his ambition. And let’s hope he prevails. But he is going to have to bring all his formidable skills and resilience to bear.
Denuded skills and resources
Clearly 100,000 council houses per year would be unbelievably welcome. But the harsh fact is that the local authority sector was denuded of this responsibility some decades ago, and of course has been progressively starved of resources over many years since. So they’re now just not up to it. Only this week I was at a seminar at the Institution of Civil Engineers lamenting “the demise of the Borough Engineer”. Apart from a very few notable exceptions, councils now signally lack the skills, or the capability, or the capacity, to step up. If they are to be thus re-empowered, it is not enough to simply grant them borrowing powers for new housing, they will need the support of a serious capacity building exercise, probably best coordinated by Homes England (already making some helpful interventions in taking on the role of master developer in places like Crawley) and the Local Government Association. I am not saying it can’t be done. Far from it. I am saying it can, and certainly should be done. But it is going to need a concerted bulwark of support, in terms of skills and finance and political will. George Clarke himself is, rather impressively, practising what he preaches, embarking on the delivery of a new council estate in Manchester; so I am sure we will see all this unfolding in action on C4 over the coming weeks.
And suspending Right to Buy (RtB) in England is a very Big Ask from any Conservative government, particularly one as distracted and shambolic as this one. RtB remains one of the most popular post-war policies of modern Britain and taps straight into the psyche of “an Englishman’s home is his castle”. The big fault with RtB, as implemented in the early 1980s, was that the receipts were not hypothecated to be used solely for the provision of new homes in the same place. Michael Heseltine is most eloquent on this point, as it was he who promoted the policy in the first place, not merely to promote home ownership but – and this predominantly – as a mechanism of the provision of more council homes. The policy was only partially implemented by Mrs Thatcher, for ideological reasons. But no ambitious tory minister could unpick it now. A more productive seam for Mr Clarke to explore, might be the genuine hypothecation of all RtB council house receipts for the building of new estates. After all, politics is the art of the possible.
Three pillars of wellbeing
One thing is for sure – and George Clarke has sure demonstrated in the most spectacular and stark of terms – successive governments, of the past 40 years, at least, have progressively lost sight that there are three pillars of public wellbeing: education, health AND housing. Over the years, public housing has largely been contracted out to the private sector, and the housing associations, within an irresponsible and poorly regulated framework, with dubious results at best. So we got a piecemeal response, at the caprice of the market. It is hardly any wonder that we now have a crisis in housing, particularly in affordable housing.
We should all stand up and applaud George Clarke. And get behind his noble crusade. As I can testify, from bitter experience, it is incredibly easy to get totally ground down with trying to reform the housing market in this country. But George Clarke shows no sign of getting ground down, or going native. Like Iron Man, he just keeps putting one foot in front of the other. Her Majesty’s Government needs to respond by doing something profound. Like, say, putting Gavin Barwell (who has a 360 degree understanding of the issues) in charge of ensuring 100,00 new council houses are delivered each year. Just a thought.
Jackie Sadek is chief operating officer at UK Regeneration