Why we love council housing, and hate the Housing and Planning Bill

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Right now, our government is trying to legislate the beginning of the end for council housing, whether that’s a home rented direct from the council, through a housing association or as part of a co-op.

Tomorrow, MPs will again meet to debate the Housing and Planning Bill, a debate which could end with them voting the bill into law. Not only will the bill force councils to sell off council homes, whilst even more are lost as right-to-buy is extended to housing association tenants, it will pave the way for more council estates to be demolished.

The government is smearing council estates as run down ‘sinks’ of crime, and trying to persuade us that the bill will make it easier for everyone to have a home. But we in the Radical Housing Network know that council housing is one of the best ways to provide people with safe and secure homes, and that the bill will worsen the housing crisis for the majority and only benefit investors, developers and the rich. Here’s why people across the network love council houses.

They’re *actually, actually* affordable

“For someone earning just above minimum wage, I have a secure family home at an affordable rent and don’t need to claim benefits. This is a proud tradition in the working poor.” Linda Taylor.

Council and housing associations tenancies are designed so that people can afford them, 70% of a property’s rent is based on average local wages. Private rents are based on how much a landlord can squeeze out of a tenant. Surprise, surprise then, that the average social housing rent across London for a two bed is £104 a week, whereas privately it’s £320 a week.

More social housing would actually save the government money too. Housing benefit costs us £24.4 billion a year, much of which is going into private landlords’ pockets, and homelessness and health problems caused by housing problems are expensive, as well as immoral. Management of council housing is paid for by rent, and extra profits stay as public money. Selling off public land to private developers may bring in a quick buck, but building council homes on it is an investment that will pay us back for decades, even centuries, to come.

You can settle in

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Hackney renters group Digs protesting against private renters being discriminated against because they’re on benefits.

“I’d love council housing because it would provide me with my own secure and affordable flat, unlike the room I rent in shared accommodation, where I can be kicked out with two months notice and which costs the same amount.” Glenn McMahon, Tower Hamlets Renters.

Councils or housing associations have to have pretty good reasons from evicting you, such as not paying the rent or illegal activities, but a private landlord doesn’t even have to say why they’re kicking you out.

Council tenancies are given out based on need rather than wealth or anything else, and if you lose your job and have to go on benefits, you won’t be discriminated against and can keep your home. If you rent privately, it’s a different story, and many landlords or letting agents will turn you away.

You don’t have to lock yourself into a lifetime of debt

With the average house price for a first time buyer in London getting on for £400,000, and with KPMG figuring out last year you’d need to earn £77,000 to get on the property ladder here, for most people owning a home is a joke. But even if you do somehow manage to scrabble onto the bottom rung, you’re locked into a mountain of debt, and risk losing your home if interest rates shoot up, you lose your job, or for whatever reason you can’t pay.

They let people build communities

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Barnet Housing Action Group protesting evictions at Sweets Way Estate.

“Cheap rent and life long tenancies are what people need in order to thrive and be part a community. Social housing means children can access regular schooling, people can hold down jobs if they are not moving all the time and they can receive health care from local services if needed. This is what housing stability brings – it enables us to get on with life.” Ayesha Taylor, Focus E15 campaign.

A tenancy for years to come or for life means you don’t have to worry about being forced to move away from your job, family and friends just because rising property prices or rents in the area have got too much.

…and themselves

When times get tough, a secure home can be a life saver.

“I have been lucky enough to have a council/social housing tenancy for 30 years. It has been the bedrock of my life and has given me the safety and security I needed to beat addictions, attend further and higher education, bring up my daughter in a safe and secure environment (I was able to swap tenancies and move to escape a violent partner) and to manage my mental health when diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder. My home has always been my sanctuary, a place to be calm and to heal; a place I can shut the door on the world and feel safe.” Janette Walsh, Barnet Housing Action.

They’re quality (at least, more so than the private sector)

“My council home had three decent sized bedrooms, decent ventilation, a lovely back garden where me and my brother could run around, and it was always warm. When something broke, or if we got a leak, the council fixed it. Even though I grew up very poor, I never really experienced terrible housing conditions until I lived in the private sector.” Rebecca Winson, GMB Young London.

Council homes must meet certain standards to ensure they are safe and in reasonable condition, covering the dire stuff like dangerous electrics, to just making sure your bathroom’s been upgraded in the last 30 years. Private landlords don’t have to make sure their properties are up to the standards, but according to Shelter, if they did over a third of private rented homes would fall foul of them, and tenants and councils have few rights and powers to force private landlords to make repairs.

Council estates can be really nice, safe places to live

“Council housing can be wonderful places to live with strong communities. Every so-called ‘sink estate’ is an estate that was either badly designed or more likely has been poorly maintained and actively neglected.” Christine Clifford.

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‘Sink estate’ Broadwater Farm.

Heard David Cameron talking about Broadwater Farm estate recently, saying it’s the one of the causes of the Tottenham riots, and full of ‘criminals’ and ‘anti-social behaviour? Our friends at Architects for Social Housing (ASH) have blogged about the estate, highlighting that since it’s regeneration in 1985 it’s had one of the lowest crime rates of any urban area in the world, and now has a community centre, neighbourhood office, children’s nursery and health centre, social projects, sports clubs and youth programmes, murals and communal gardens.

If you’re lucky enough to have a place in a council housing co-op, you have even more control in building your community.

“Housing Co-ops are vibrant, autonomous communities. Members are responsible for setting their own rents, rules and policies, they are self-governed and democratically run. It’s not always easy or straightforward but co-ops can provide great examples of groups of people living and working together.” Claudia, London Cooperative Housing Group.

They can help fix the housing crisis. THEY CAN HELP FIX THE HOUSING CRISIS EVERYONE.

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The Kill the Bill campaign take it to the streets on the March for Homes.

Private rents taking nearly all of a pay packet. Homelessness going up and up and up. No hope in hell for the majority of owning their own home. Slum living on the rise, with people forced to live in smaller and smaller spaces, and in conditions so poor they cause ill health and even death.

Sounds familiar? It’s 2016, after decades of decline in council homes, but it’s also the early 1880s up to 1919, when councils started building homes after years of campaigning and action from tenants, workers and activists against dire housing conditions.

We need more council homes, not less. Homes that are built for the people that live in them, and for not landlords, investors, or developers. The Tories’ Housing Bill aims to destroy them, and will hit everyone trying to rent or buy on low or middle incomes. It condemns millions to a lifetime of insecure, expensive private renting.

That’s why we in the Radical Housing Network love council housing, and hate the Housing and Planning Bill. That’s why we’re protesting at the bill’s reading tomorrow, fighting evictions and demolitions, reclaiming public spaces, supporting tenants, and demanding that council homes are saved today and for the future.

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