He was one of four speakers and a chair, and his talk was such a good summary of what has happened to council housing under New Labour and since that I have transcribed it, with the help of YouTube (upload, wait, download captions), below:-

Okay I’m going to start somewhat differently I’m not really going to talk about the architecture I’m not going to talk about the estates, in a way the concept of a council estate is epiphenomenal to really the fundamental key aspect of what we’re dealing with. The key aspect for council housing for me is that it’s a part of the welfare state.

In other words then what happens is that council housing is a housing tenure.

You can access it, you pay rent to a landlord.

The point is that you as a citizen need housing but you don’t have enough money to buy or rent a house in the private market. You then go to the state and the state says okay you’re in housing need and we will then supply this house to you. Now this idea that in some sense the state is responsible for providing housing is actually a relatively recent idea, it’s only really been around in the last century or so and really you only find welfare states in certain Northern European and North American societies, they’re relatively unusual.

[In] many parts of the world you won’t actually – the idea that the state should somehow take responsibility for housing its citizens is anathema, doesn’t happen, so in other words then, what we have to do, we have to think about council housing, for me anyway, as part of the way that the welfare state emerged that the way that the welfare state developed.

I just want to try and put a statistic on this which I think gives it some idea of the scale and the importance of council housing in this city. [The] 2011 census it showed that in Birmingham the population that the number of households in Birmingham was 411,000 houses. Birmingham’s the second biggest city in the UK. Now this size of Birmingham is actually smaller than the total number of households renting from councils in London. In 2011 there were 440,000 households renting council homes in London and that’s about fourteen percent of the entire  population.

Now of course that very large substantial figure is of course far less than the peak which was 30 years earlier in the 1981 Census. At that point councils, councils in London housed 777,000 households, thirty-one percent of the entire city. In Inner London forty-three percent of all inner Londoners lived in council housing. Tower Hamlets, eighty-two percent of all the residents of Tower Hamlets lived in council housing, Southwark two-thirds.

The point about all these statistics is this – is that council housing in relationship to the development of London as a city is not some sort of marginal phenomena and they’re certainly not forgotten estates, they’ve actually been, Council housing has actually been central it’s been key to the way that this city has developed – again you can clearly see this just in relationship to walking around the city. Walk around boroughs like Camden or Islington or Southwark or Lambeth or Tower Hamlets, everywhere you will see council built estates.

You’ll see council housing and this is very very dissimilar to many other European certainly North American cities.

North American cities again, even if you take very large cities with very large public housing, the so called projects like Chicago. Chicago housing authority at its peak only had 35,000 units and most of those were actually cut off and separated behind major express ways. In Paris the social housing units the banlieue they’re located 20 or 30 miles outside of the city – they are in that sense spatially marginal. So it’s really not the case that London’s council estates are marginal.

They’re not forgotten they’ve actually been key to the way the city’s developed over the last century.

Well then you’ve got to ask yourself ok so what was the distribution of council houses across the city, across the country, and it’s not random. There’s no randomness about it. It’s very very clear that in a very few wealthy, you won’t find much council housing or council estates in wealthy rural areas. Where you will find lots of council housing is in predominantly industrial urban areas, the large cities.

There’s a politics to this and that you can’t duck this there’s no sort of – there’s no – people talk about the post-war consensus there’s it was never that much of a consensus. When you drill down at the local level to what was going on between Labour and Tory councils, and it’s very very clear again if you look at London it was in the – it was in the Labour authorities – that’s where you have the large concentrations of council housing.

The LCC which was absolutely unheard of unprecedented period of 32 years of Labour hegemony from 1933 up until 1965 it built thousands and thousands of households in the inner core and again if you take said you look at Southwark two-thirds of alternate households back 1981 were council tenants. Compare that, with say Barnet. Barnet’s pretty much always been a Tory authority

Barnet even at its peak never got beyond nineteen percent of its stock as council housing. So there’s a politics to this and essentially again you can track this through – particularly in the early part of the 20th century. One of the ways that, one of the ways that the Labour Party developed in London because London of course was a little bit different than say the coalfields areas or steel heavy industrial cities like Sheffield because London didn’t rely on large industry – London was primarily working classes, small workshops.

So Labour had a problem and actually being able to mobilise in that sense so what they did throughout the first part of the 20th century was that they mobilised on a ward basis precisely around municipal socialism. We will provide you council housing on the rates. We will actually provide this thing. It was incredibly electorally successful and it was also politically successful and it also was very much part and part of the way that the Labour Party grew up and developed in the 20th century.

So in other words then what you have is a whole series of political economic configurations have brought this thing into being.

This might be a heretical thing to say being on a panel with architectural specialists – at the end of the day architects don’t build housing. States build housing. Capital builds housing. That’s the key aspect, the relationship between state and capital and what we’ve clearly seen over the last 30 or 40 years is a switch away from the notion that the state should provide council housing on the basis of need towards the idea that essentially private capital should produce housing on the basis of profitability that’s the key shift that’s gone on.

In relationship to what’s the micropolitics of what’s happened over the last 30 years clearly Thatcher as well known yeah, the“right to buy” the creation of the “property owning democracy” these are long-term Conservative interests and also in terms of the the spending on council estates in during that period during the 18 years of Conservatism. By 1997 it’s generally estimated that across the country there were something like £19 billion pounds worth of repairs needed on estates.

Now what then happens is this. In 1997 clearly the election of Labour in that year was a key moment. Everybody was, lots of people by 1997 were aware that the NHS was struggling, it was generally a common perception the NHS was struggling. But also council housing was incredibly struggling. I interviewed people at the time the conditions that people were living in were appalling. In Camden something like in Camden, ninety-five percent of council homes didn’t meet “decent homes”standards.

So what happens then is that Labour comes in 1997 but they do something different than all other Labour governments. What they do is they cut council housing out of their agenda because they basically make this pact with the electorate.

“You guys, you like the NHS, you like state funded education, we’re going to maintain that but you’re not too keen on council housing. You might want to buy it, but it’s got all these supposedly dystopian attributes to it the things that my colleagues have talked about. So what we’re going to do is we’re not going to actually reinvest in this part of the welfare state.”

They did put in the “Decent Homes” program that was investment in the existing stock but they put in place an incredibly complicated governance arrangement. They basically said to councils – they didn’t allow councils to borrow on their income streams for all kinds of reasons which can ask me about – but essentially then New Labour said

“Right well you can improve your stock, the condition of the stock but we’re not going to give you any money, we’re going to set targets but with not going to be new finance so what we’re going to do is then you can actually then have a stock transfer you can stock transfer to a Housing Association – and stock transfer then can lever in the funds that housing association so we can lever in the funds, or you can have a PFI or you can have an ALMO an Arms Length Management Organisation”

but they were against direct investment by councils by local authorities in the stock. But in their 2000 Green Paper they actually talk about stock transfering 200,000 homes per year.

So in other words what’s happened is this. Is that the political party which created, created this part of the welfare state, cut it off at its knees – and – they didn’t build any more.

Again you can see the figures in relationship to this the country generally everybody knows now they didn’t build enough social housing. The expectation that housing associations, the so-called third arm of the housing sector we’re going to actually provide social housing at the numbers that councils councils used to provide in the post war period. It never happened. It was never going to happen either. It was clear. So essentially there what you’ve got is you’re leaving it to the markets.

Well the market as we know again, the market will only provide certain kinds of housing to those people who can pay. It’s certainly not going to provide homes for people who are on low-incomes, it’s not going to happen.

So by the time then and essentially again in terms of Labour then they carried on the “right to buy” ok, so they cut the discounts. They did implement the stock transfer and the whole Decent Homes Program was wrapped up in all these governance complexities.

Really what was necessary in 1997 to address that £19 billion pound deficit was a Marshall Plan. You actually needed it was some sort of Marshall Plan to really address the terrible conditions that council tenants were living in rather than what the long drawn-out process that Labour took in place.

Now what happened in London, I’m just talking about very briefly about London is that at some point in the late 1990s – the Labour councils – they switched their agenda – they switched from being New Urban Left to sort of saying, look we’re deprived areas, we’ve got all these problems, that they suddenly discovered that they had an asset base. In other words they were sitting on valuable land. That valuable land of course a lot of it is council estates.

So what they’ve been doing then over the last decade or so, this includes Labour councils as well as Conservative councils is they’ve basically been maximising their asset base. That’s what they talk about. They talk about this. But the problem they’ve got, this problem that you talk about in relationship to Robin Hood Gardens, is they’ve actually got existing residents there, so somehow they have to spring them, they’ve got to get rid of them, and that then is the contentious thing which is clearly happening right across the city in relationship to the way that many residents in many estates and I’ve spoken to many, many reasons for different regeneration of estates.

Yes there are often things wrong with the estates. Nobody’s saying that there aren’t problems in the estates and a lot of that, as my colleagues have said it’s down to insufficient investment, insufficient maintenance, but nevertheless the idea that London council estates are in any way analogous to the US projects of the 1960s and 1970s is laughable.

It’s simply not the case and again if you think about – there’s a whole history to the way that the urban policy and regeneration is involved and many of the ideas have come forward from the US, particularly the Hope VI program which was instituted in the mid-1990s – and that’s migrated to the UK.

“Yes ok, so what we need to do is knock down mono-tenure public estates, the projects, and replace them then with multi-tenure housing estates that will then somehow raise the aspirations of the remaining public tenants.”

The US projects were never the equivalent of London council states. The levels of homicide in US projects were never ever the levels of crime that you had on London estates. As many ways it was a false analogy in many ways.

My experience of estates and talking to lots of residents is estates are incredibly mundane places. They’re just places where people live get on with their lives – have squabbles with neighbours sometimes – some people live on big estates and people live on small estates – some people live in houses some people in flats but, as I said, the key fundamental aspect is this aspect to do with the Welfare State and what we’re seeing in relationship to the housing crisis is the way that as this aspect of the Welfare State is being cut to bits so it’s having all of these really incredibly negative impacts on London residents and the spikes in homelessness now across the city.

There are something like 50,000 households living in temporary accommodation – 17,000 of those have actually been displaced out of their borough. So what you have is this sort of increasing nomadism around the homeless population with all incredibly negative impacts on peoples children the welfare etc etc and without – this is a Party Political issue it’s not just no wonder the Conservatives have passed the awful Housing and Planning bill 2016 because they can do this, because the party which should have loved and created and nurtured that part of the welfare state didn’t.

So it’s almost like an open goal it’s now open goal for the Conservatives to put in place even worse policies.

Paul Watt 26/9/2016

Further reading:-


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