Return to Rachmanism?

THE CON-DEM government last Tuesday announced its intention to cut the social housing budget by over 50 per cent, to end council tenancies for life and the passing on of council tenancies from parents to their adult offspring still living at home.

They claim they also plan to build 150,000 new “affordable” homes and to finance this by raising council rents to “market levels” while at the same time cutting housing benefit. And they expect private rented accommodation to expand to take up those who cannot get council or housing association accommodation.

The cut in the housing budget will immediately impact on hundreds of thousands already on waiting lists, currently homeless or living in overcrowded accommodation with in-laws or other friends and relatives.

Many surveys have shown that children in particular suffer in their health and their education from growing up in overcrowded accommodation. It will totally squash the plans of a generation of young people to pair up and raise their own families because there will be no foreseeable chance of them getting a home of their own. For most people on median wages buying a house is now an impossible dream; if the already meagre supply of social housing is cut off they have no hope.

There are many myths among the middle and upper classes about council housing and housing benefit and that the tenants are subsidised by tax payers. They are not. Most long-term council tenants have paid the cost of the land, construction and maintenance of their homes many times over. Councils with a large housing stock have a rich source of revenue, even from rents that are supported by housing benefit because basic rent levels are well above the costs of maintenance and administration.

But from the capitalist class point of view the great sin of council tenants is that they have some degree of protection against the kind of landlord exploitation that says pay up everything you have or face the abyss of homelessness. That is what they seek to bring back.

The other myth about housing benefit is that it is for the tenants — it is not, it goes straight to the landlords.

When Edward Heath in 1971 introduced a sharp rise in council rents to “market levels” he could only do it by also introducing housing benefit — otherwise millions of council tenants would have open been turned out on to the streets immediately and there would have been open rebellion. And the rise in rents was not because the councils needed the extra money but to shore up the private housing market and persuade those who could to buy their own home — making a profit for the banks and building societies as they did so.

Since then the price of housing in Britain has soared way above ordinary levels of inflation. And basic council rents have risen steadily but without much opposition from tenants because most are on housing benefit, so the rise has cost the taxpayer more but made little difference to most tenants.

The changes Cameron is about to introduce will change all that. Low income council tenants will face the full force of rent rises — but they will be in the same boat as their neighbours. So our role must be to raise awareness, combat capitalist lies about council tenants and take part in the revival of militant tenants’ associations, ready to take to the streets to fight or take part in rent strikes.

The alternative will see hundreds of thousands of low income tenants who cannot pay the new higher rents being evicted; a new army of the homeless on the streets and the return of slum landlordism. It never went away for young, single immigrants in London.

And already there are many victims of the transfer of council homes to the private sector. A web of letting agencies and management trusts let and sub let former council homes; charge key money to new tenants, collect rents and then default with the money leaving the tenants to face eviction by the company that now owns the freehold.

This racketeering is currently mainly in inner cities but it will become the norm throughout the country if these Con-Dem proposals go ahead. Defending council housing will become a major part of the struggle to get rid of this Con-Dem government and ultimately the whole capitalist system.