Build A Better Britain

Although an the overall desire for a mythical ‘Attlee/Bevan mark two’ administration is unsound and not to mention impossible practically, Frances O’Grady in Tribune Magazine here still makes some very good points: “Aneurin Bevan remains a towering figure in the labour movement – a trade unionist, a socialist and a true visionary. He gave us ambition and confidence in our own ability as working people to change the course of history.

His headline achievements are well known: advances in the rights of working people, the launch of the National Health Service based on need not ability to pay and – perhaps less famously, but in today’s Britain more relevant than ever – high-quality council homes. On that specific issue of housing, the left must seek to build on Nye’s legacy for the future.

In my first speech to the TUC Congress, I called for a commitment to build one million affordable and council new homes. At this year’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband pledged 200,000 new homes a year by 2015. He talked about tough action against land speculators. But Labour will also need to address how these homes will get built and to whose benefit.

Will we take our chances with a market that has systematically failed to meet the housing needs of those on an average income? Or will we be bold enough to liberate local government and harness popular planning so we build homes that people want, as well as need?

If we get this right we won’t only realise the dream of affordable housing; we can also generate hundreds of thousands of good jobs. And we can give life to our values of equality, democracy and stronger communities.

There is much we can learn from Nye Bevan. After the Second World War, he led the generation that transformed state-built housing from provision for the poor, to the aspiration of decent homes for all. Despite a dire shortage of skills and building materials, Labour oversaw the construction of 55,000 new homes in 1946, rising to 140,000 in 1947 and 228,000 in 1948. The programme Nye started was so successful that the Conservative Government, led by Harold MacMillan, continued with it – albeit with an eye on cutting costs and a return to the narrower goal of slum clearance.

The council house I was born in was built in the 1950s. It was a life changer for my family who previously lived in private rented accommodation. This was at a time when the options for black, Irish or dog-owning tenants were somewhat limited. The prospect of a council home with hot running water, a back garden and an inside toilet represented a revolution in ordinary life.

It was only when I saw Ken Loach’s film, Spirit of 45, that I realised that Nye’s original intention was not only that all council homes should have an upstairs bathroom, they should have a downstairs toilet, too.

In the short term, that would cost a little more per unit. But Nye’s reasoning was that it would mean children could go in and out to play without dragging the mud on their shoes through the house, and so save their mothers from having to clean up after them. A small detail, perhaps, but one that gives an insight into the humanity of the man – and it is an example of the difference between a technocratic fix and a socialist solution to housing need.

The big political and economic challenges facing us are clear. Instead of allowing a wealthy elite to become even richer, we need to get living standards rising for ordinary working people. Instead of accepting the Tory dogma that seeks to shrink the state on a permanent basis, we need a state that is capable of shaping the market for the common good. Instead of sleepwalking back to the financial and property speculation that got us into this mess, we need to build a genuinely productive economy. One that provides the goods and services Britain actually needs; that helps us respond to the profound threat of climate change; that has decent jobs, wages and homes at its heart.

As Nye Bevan understood better than anyone, decent homes are important not just to our economic prospects, but also to people’s quality of life: our children’s educational attainment, our health and wellbeing, and our chances of finding a decent job. But, as Labour politicians now admit, housing was something of a blind spot for the party during the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments. The damage done in the 1980s was not repaired. Like the fire-sale of public utilities, Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy scheme may have benefited some working people, but only at a massive cost to subsequent generations. And Thatcher’s assault on the powers and resources of local government powers and resources left a big black hole in Britain’s housing stock that Labour after 1997 failed to fill.

That served to alienate working-class voters whose wages were already stagnating and who saw house prices rocketing – if not out of their own reach, then certainly beyond the reach of their adult children. It also fuelled resentments, first against yuppies and then against migrants, immigrants and refugees, who are now wrongly blamed for a massive housing shortage. In truth, the fault lay in the failure of successive governments to build.

Despite well meaning initiatives such as the Decent Homes programme, just 13 per cent of the 2.5 million new houses built during Labour’s office were built by social landlords, meaning less well-off families missed out. The free market failed too many people in too many parts of the country, with developers’ investment flowing to where the returns, rather than need, were greatest. It’s an approach that has given Britain the most expensive housing in western Europe.

The result is clear: hundreds of thousands of homeless and hidden homeless, and many more living in overcrowded, unhealthy and unsuitable housing.

There is a chronic shortage of affordable social housing. Instead we have an over-supply of expensive and often substandard private rented accommodation, with taxpayers’ money filling landlords’ pockets to the tune of billions. Growing numbers of grown adults are still living with their own parents, long past their expected fly the nest date.

In London, the average price of a house is nudging half a million pounds, symptomatic of a completely dysfunctional housing market in Europe’s most lopsided economy. At the same time, in the capital’s more fashionable postcodes, homes are increasingly used not as somewhere for locals to live, but as a reserve currency for the global super rich.

Nye Bevan started his working life as a miner in the coalfields of south Wales. But most of the subterranean activity that goes on in the United Kingdom these days seems to be beneath the streets of Kensington and Chelsea, as the financiers and oligarchs build themselves huge underground swimming pools, cinemas and car parks.

What kind of society have we become when the rich spend tens of millions on home improvements, while the poor face eviction because they can’t afford the £14 a week bedroom tax?

The Government’s response is to boost demand rather than supply – less Help to Buy, more Help to Sell. By driving up prices, it is already working against the goal of boosting access to housing. As research by the Resolution Foundation shows, low and middle-income families are unable to use the scheme across two-thirds of Britain. Even with rock bottom interest rates, for average workers hit by a real wage cut of £30 a week, mortgage repayments are unaffordable.

What about social housing? In his March Budget, the Chancellor announced plans to build 15,000 new affordable homes. With 360,000 families on the council housing waiting list in London alone, that’s little more than a drop in the ocean. Further, when the government came to power, it slashed the budget for social housing by a whopping £4 billion.

Labour must give people hope that there is an alternative. First, it must boost growth. According to the National Housing Federation, every affordable home we build boosts the economy by around £108,000. Research by Oxford Economics has found that for every pound spent on housing – whether public or private money – we generate £1.40 of wider economic benefits. Even the International Monetary Fund is now urging the Conservative-led to invest in bricks and mortar as a means of boosting growth and reducing the cost of living.

Of course, there would be a price – around £50 billion. That’s a big figure, but not far off the cost of HS2. And the long-term benefits could be huge. According to TUC research, they could be worth up to £400 billion.

Second, Labour must create decent jobs. With unemployment still high and good apprenticeships for young people in short supply, here is a great way to get Britain back to work. Based on figures from the National Housing Federation, the million homes pledge could generate around 1.5 million jobs.

Nye would have been horrified by the idea that council homes could become new ghettoes for the poor. His vision was that they would be the centre of a new democratic community life.

He explained his vision in these terms: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of citizens… to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.”

Nye was a talented union organiser and knew what it meant to be victimised because he stood up for union values. This promises to be one of the dirtiest election campaigns on record and the traditional public school boy pastime of union-bashing as a way to hurt Labour is already well under way.

We already have the Government’s Lobbying Bill, which is designed to curb union campaigning and open up our individual membership lists to state scrutiny.  The Government has also announced that it will launch an inquiry into union campaigns away from the workplace. The terms of reference haven’t been published. According to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, it’s an investigation into allegations of union intimidation and bullying following protests against the employer’s threat to close Grangemouth. However, according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, it’s an investigation into unfair labour practices, including blacklisting. Which is interesting, as it will be headed up by a QC who has acted for Balfour Beatty. Balfour Beatty is a self-confessed subscriber to the Consulting Agency which ran the most infamous blacklist in the construction industry. No wonder the TUC has little confidence in the integrity and claimed even-handedness of this so-called review.

Today, just over half a century on from his death, Nye’s unique legacy remains as vivid as ever. The context may be different, but the 2015 general election is shaping up to be as important as that in 1945. The choices facing Britain will be essentially the same: growing inequality or shared prosperity, division or unity, fear or hope.

Labour won in 1945 because it had confidence in its values, because it spoke for working people, and because it inspired them that there could be a better way and delivered real and practical change. In the end, what do most of us want? A decent job that pays enough money to look after our families; enough time to spend with the people we love, a good community and a decent home to live in. As Nye Bevan said: “We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers; now we are the builders.”” (http://www.tribunemagazine.org/2013/12/lets-build-a-better-britain-2/)

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