Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Post-war house building achieved its peak not under Clement Attlee, but Winston Churchill.
The post-war housing crisis had been one of the big issues of the 1951 election and it was the Tories who won the bidding war by identifying housing as “the first of the social services” and promising to build 300,000 homes a year, a target which some regarded as unachievable.
To deliver his manifesto promise, Churchill turned to none other than Harold Macmillan. Macmillan didn’t really fancy the job of housing minister but as he made clear in his diaries Churchill wasn’t taking no for an answer: “it will make or mar your career,” he told him. By 1953, the target was being met and Macmillan did indeed go on to bigger things becoming Prime Minister in 1957; indeed the Conservatives were to be in power for 13 years, despite the political horror show that was the Suez Crisis of 1956. Who can doubt that all those new homes contributed significantly to the plausibility of Supermac’s election-winning claim that most Britons had “never had it so good”?
The housing crisis today is very different of course. Ours is not the result of bombings, or shameful slum conditions. Instead, our population has grown significantly, more people are living on their own, a lot of our social housing stock has been sold off under Right to Buy without being replaced, and for many years we have not been building anywhere near enough new housing to keep up with those developments.
So housing is now back on the agenda in a big way, and is the source of much bitterness and division, and a lot of misery and poverty as well. If we can fix the problem the political rewards could be just as great as they were for our party back in the 1950s. And in finding that solution where better to start than with Macmillan.
How did he hit that 300,000 target? The answer, in large part, is councils. Macmillan presided over a massive increase in council housing allowing local authorities to borrow at low rates in order to build houses which would eventually pay for themselves through rents; the sort of low rates that would probably be available today, if we were free to borrow the kind of money needed.
Sadly, our current system prevents councils playing their natural role as a major provider of new housing. The disincentives and obstacles are many. For example, we can’t borrow enough against the Housing Revenue Accounts to make a meaningful dent in the housing deficit. Neither would a stock transfer to a council-owned company – a COCO – do the trick because of all the restrictions placed on such entities – for example, they are not allowed to own social housing.
The restrictions on the use of Right to Buy receipts are yet a further barrier to serious municipal investment in new homes: for example, they can only fund up to 30 per cent of any new development, which is a serious problem for councils with little borrowing headroom left in their Housing Revenue Accounts; and the receipts must be fully spent within three years or risk incurring punitive interest payments to the Treasury, and three years simply isn’t long enough for councils embarking on complex estate regeneration schemes
By changing these rules and others, the Government could tee up councils financially to deliver 10,000s of new homes each year, including much-needed additional affordable housing. These homes could then be built on council and other public land.
One of the criticisms of the Macmillan era is that a lot of the council housing was thrown up quickly and cheaply, some of it to design principles as inexplicable to us now as that which informed the Reliant Robin. Perhaps that legacy is part of the reason why in recent decades there seems to have been a certain hostility to councils as housing providers. But this is not the 1960s. We don’t have to listen to architectural gurus planning for a brave new world, but rather should listen to real people and what they want, as well as learning from what has, and hasn’t, worked well in the past.
Our post-war estates were very often built to surprisingly low density and could be redeveloped at much higher densities without bending planning rules and while only matching the densities of some of the UK’s most loved areas. These homes could be arranged on traditional streets, around green public spaces, and with local infrastructure – the shops, the schools, the GP surgeries – all designed in, which studies have shown is what people want.
The days of glowering, mono-tenure estates would be over and in their place would be mixed communities living on tenure-blind streets. And greater supply would help take some of the heat out of the market, both rental and sale. In Kensington and Chelsea, we are trying to make this happen. Many other councils are doing the same.
Under the current regime however, our impact will be limited; with Government support it could be huge. If we are serious about being a One Nation government committed to tackling inequality, then housing is the issue and councils are a big part of the answer. As Churchill said: it’s time “to build houses for the people.”