For those of us of a certain age who can remember how things appeared to be before the age of Yuppies, self-aggrandisement and globalisation, ensuring public housing hit decent levels, was a shared goal for the major political parties.
Maybe it is rose-tinted glasses syndrome, or the first signs of senility but the figures were there to prove it and compared with what we’ve experienced over the last three decades, make what is now occurring look puny. And I’m talking about both the Conservative and Labour governments of the 1940s-70s that made it a cornerstone of their domestic policies.
Take the target that the Conservative Party decided on to see 300,000 homes built every year under Winston Churchill when he returned to power in 1951. The party manifesto of that year looks positively Marxist compared with what we have experienced since 1979. ‘Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.’ Blimey, forget about right to buy, property owning democracy and estate agents on every corner where once there was a pub. Forget about the cries of little or no ‘affordable housing’, especially in London.
From 1951-64, Conservative governments built away, or had local authorities doing so the length and breadth of the land. Admittedly, there were eyesores constructed and a number have been demolished since because they created more social problems than could be envisaged. So, here was a Tory toff who managed to get to that magic figure in a way that the current Tory toff (David Cameron) has never even hinted that he will, or wants to emulate.
It’s not for me to say which one should be preferred but it is rather strange that only a few years after a devastating war, both Labour and Conservative governments dedicated themselves to rebuilding in a concerted way, especially in public housing.
It may seem perplexing that we have ended up with calls from many that we have lost our way in this respect. There’s plenty of building apparently going underway – especially if you are in Greater London – but whom for?
The massive and long overdue redevelopment of Battersea Power Station was heralded by David Cameron and the ebullient Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as a great example of regeneration but look behind the figures and what do we have? There will be 3,500 residential units built and only 500 of them will be deemed as ‘affordable’. The rest have already been sold to people in the Far East and Russia who may either use them briefly, or leave them vacant as a speculative development.
What does it matter to this industry as long as high quality places are being built with plenty of windows, doors and glass installed? We would all probably choose to live in one of these completed properties, overlooking the Thames, than the vandalised high rised monstrosities elsewhere, wouldn’t we, as long as we weren’t neighbours to Jeffrey Archer.
Of course, but local authorities have faced a cap in one form or another since the right to buy policy of the recently departed handbag owner. What we have now is a desperately lopsided house building programme that is geared to a minority of the population.
Don’t take my word for it. The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has, along with the Local Government Association (LGA) called for a lifting of the borrowing cap to let local authorities to build more desperately needed homes. The FMB Chief Executive, Brian Berry, has put it perfectly clear: “Local authorities have a central role to play in enabling the building of more new homes, and where there is a genuine commitment to increasing supply and engage with local house builders, together we can go a long way to meeting the ever-increasing demand for new housing.”
Isn’t it strange? Cast your mind back to that 1951 Conservative Party manifesto and Berry’s words seem almost interchangeable. But when you make your way up to the top of the Shard and look down on the vast expanse that is London, it’s as well to remember that the ‘ants’ below all have a right to be in affordable housing according to their income – something that can profit them and those who erect the housing for them.
Caption Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister in the 1950s and 1960s who oversaw the building of 300,000 homes a year in the UK.