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Proletarian issue 70 (February 2016)
New housing bill could pave the way for the final destruction of social housing
Is this the end of social housing in Britain or the start of a fight-back?
A bill designed by the Tories to eliminate council housing is currently going through parliament. The intention behind the bill is to phase out permanent tenancies for council tenants and to sell off vast numbers of council and housing association homes.

Families seeking housing are to be offered so-called ‘starter homes’ at £250,000, or £450,000 in London, as a substitute for so-called ‘affordable’ housing (which is already notorious for being anything but).

A housing crisis is spreading across the country, but the power of the organised working class can defeat these plans.

The main measures of the bill

1. Permanent tenancies to be phased out.

Until the Tories won the election in 2010, all council tenancies were permanent tenancies. If the proposed bill is passed, however, all new council tenancies will be fixed-term tenancies of two to five years. This will apply even in those cases where someone had a permanent secure tenancy but has applied for a transfer to a new home.

Under a five-year tenancy, councils no longer have any responsibility to house someone once the tenancy runs out, unless they are in ‘priority need’. Think of the consequences. A family is housed because they have children under 16 (or under 19 if they are in full-time education or training), since having children of this age is one of the definitions of ‘priority need’. Once the children pass this age, however, the council will be entitled to throw the entire family onto the streets with no obligation to make sure they have somewhere to go.

If you are overcrowded and you apply for rehousing, then, under this clause, you risk making yourself and your family homeless in the future. This is a savage attack on the security and welfare of working-class people.

2. New requirement for ‘starter homes’ rather than affordable housing to be included in new housing developments. ‘Starter homes’ can be valued at up to £250,000 – or £450,000 in London!

David Cameron has confirmed that this plan will divert funding from existing affordable housing obligations (called ‘Section 106’ obligations) to the construction of starter homes. At present, local authorities can oblige developers to build low-rent homes as part of any large building scheme, as the price of planning permission. In future, this subsidy will be diverted to funding starter homes instead.

Section 106 obligations currently deliver around one third of all affordable homes each year. This supply is bound to dry up when the changes come into effect.

The charity Shelter has recently made the rather obvious point that ‘starter homes’ are not affordable to most families on low and middle incomes. The charity’s research found that the average starter home will be unaffordable to families on middle incomes in a majority (58 percent) of the country by 2020. A family on the new ‘National Living Wage’ will not be able to afford a starter home in 98 percent of the country. (See Housing and planning bill: second reading briefing (House of Lords) by Steve Akehurst, Shelter, January 2016)

3. Right to Buy introduced for housing-association properties.

It is claimed that these homes will be replaced, but, as Shelter says, the government’s definition of ‘replacement’ is inadequate. It is national, not local, and allows housing associations to replace low-rent homes with starter homes and shared ownership (which are far less affordable to most working families) in areas far from where the homes being ‘replaced’ have been sold.

Since 2012, only one in nine council homes sold under the existing Right to Buy has been replaced, so it is very likely that this promise is just another in a long line of lies aimed at reducing opposition.

4. Councils compelled to sell off ‘high-value’ homes when they become empty.

This will fund Right to Buy discounts for housing association tenants across the country. Shelter calculates that 19,000 council homes could be sold in this way by 2020, with 113,000 at risk in total.(See Forced council sales – impact on combined authorities by Steve Akehurst and Sara Mahmoud, Shelter, January 2016)

5. People in council homes with a household income of more than £30,000 (£40,000 in London) will have their rents increased to a level that may reach market levels.

With market rents on two-bedroom properties running at well over £1,000 a month in the London suburbs, families could easily end up spending half their salary on rent. Let us not forget that even in cheaper housing markets – for example, Manchester – this would mean families spending a third of their take-home pay on rent. Not great news when you have bills to pay and children to provide for. (See Consultation response: pay to stay by Vicky Pearlman, Shelter, December 2015)

Capitalism and the housing crisis

Selling off social housing and taking away tenants’ rights has to be seen in the context of our imperialist, finance-capital-orientated economy. The aim of the government is the total sell-off and privatisation of social housing in order to provide investment opportunities for finance capital.

This is a process that will be facilitated by Cameron’s recent pledge to bulldoze council estates in order to gift the land to private developers. In a developed socialist economy, the emphasis would be on developing high-tech industry to meet people’s needs and to automate work to reduce toil and repetitive labour.

In conditions of capitalist economic crisis, on the other hand, the imperialists have shifted much of our industry off shore to take advantage of low pay in the oppressed countries. Much domestic investment is directed towards speculation rather than into anything productive, and the property market is a prime target for this gambling. As capital floods into property to make easy profits, so housing becomes more and more unaffordable for ever-larger sections of the working class.

The greedy capitalists cannot even pay a living wage to the workers who put up these houses for them. Despite the vast profits to be made on house building, the capitalists routinely exploit unprotected immigrant labour on building sites, refusing to allow any unionisation or basic safety protections and often paying rates of only £7 an hour.

Workers can win the right to housing

Sadly, the bill is likely to be passed by parliament, but this need not mean that the working class has lost. Workers have the strength and power to beat the capitalist onslaught on our right to housing. We will only have truly secure housing when we have got rid of capitalism altogether and replaced it with socialism, but even under the present conditions, if we are organised and determined, we can force the ruling class to give up some of its profits in order to provide social housing to all who need it.

One hopeful sign is that the RMT union has included a demand for higher pay that is linked to the increasing cost of housing in its ongoing dispute (arising from the proposed introduction of night trains on the London Underground). If planned strikes go ahead, they will cripple public transport in London.

Such strike action is in the interest of all working-class people. Organised workers have the power to put housing on the agenda and force the government to end its policy of selling off social housing. They can only do this, however, if they break the power of the Labour party-linked bureaucrats who run the unions. No effective action is possible with a reformist union agenda based solely around getting Labour elected.

The government and the bosses need to be presented with a choice: either massive pay rises for the working class to pay for the absurd effects of the market system on house prices and rents, or a huge programme of social housing to tackle the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, we need to appreciate the context in which we are struggling and draw the correct conclusions.

When social housing was first introduced, it was because the industrial bourgeoisie needed a ready supply of cheap workers for their factories and other work places. Later on, it was maintained because the socialist Soviet Union provided universal social housing to all who needed it and the British ruling class was worried that if certain social benefits were not provided to the masses of workers here, then they would be tempted to follow the Soviet Union in overthrowing capitalism so as to provide for themselves what the capitalist class ruling class would not.

Today, industry has largely moved offshore and the mighty Soviet Union has been brought down, so our capitalist ruling class lacks all incentive to waste good profits on providing benefits for workers. In the course of having to fight at great personal cost for such basic human rights as decent housing, the proletariat will be discarding its illusions that it is possible for capitalism to provide long term for the interests of workers.

It is an essential part of workers’ education that we fully grasp that it is a fundamental law of capitalism that over time the rich will richer while the poor get poorer. This law cannot be overcome while capitalism remains. The illusion that it could be was fostered in imperialist countries for much of the 20th century because imperialism caused the worst poverty to be exported to oppressed countries while the standard of living of workers in the imperialist countries rose.

Today, however, the chickens are coming home to roost, and the increasing poverty of the proletariat is spreading not only to lower-paid workers in the imperialist countries but even to privileged workers – those with sought-after skills and the intellectuals – who can no longer glory in a well-paid job for life. Increasingly, life is making it obvious that it’s time to face it: capitalism must go.

With the working-class movement as weak is it is at present, and with the communist movement in disarray and riddled with opportunism, our imperialist ruling class feels able to laugh in the faces of those who demand rights for workers. If any concessions are to be wrung, these will be successful to the extent that the revolutionary communist movement gains in strength and influence, threatening bourgeois state power.

It is clear that nothing is going to be handed to us on a plate. It is time we understood our collective power and organised ourselves to use it!
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