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Mike Wadsworth finds little support for housing co-operatives at a recent meeting of his CLP

All-member meetings, organised by the political education officer, are a regular feature of the constituency Labour Party in Great Yarmouth. Previous topics have included the Labour Party-trade union link and the future of pension and welfare provision. The issues raised are fed back to the CLP and into the rolling meetings that are meant to provide grass roots responses to the policy documents produced by Labour Party HQ.

The meeting I attended about Labour’s housing policy included two headline speakers – Tony Wright, the MP for Great Yarmouth and someone from the Defend Council Housing campaign, whose name I didn’t catch.

Great Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth is a long-standing holiday resort on the north sea coast and remains the third most popular holiday resort in the UK, after Blackpool and Eastbourne. At least, that’s according to a piece in the Eastern Daily Press responding to the reported opinion of so-called comedian Jim Davidson that Great Yarmouth is a ‘s**t hole’. he should know – after all he’s done several profitable summer seasons in the town. Actually, some of the things he said are probably true; while others were downright racist and were not adequately refuted, which is another story.

Great Yarmouth – full of contrasts. Definitely not a shithole.

Basically, the borough of Great Yarmouth is, like most places, full of contrasts. There are rural areas to the north where fairly affluent people who built up reasonable occupational pensions in the 1950s and 1980s have retired. And there are areas where locally-born people live, many of them employed in agriculture, the holiday industry or fishing, all of which are in decline, or highly seasonal, or both. As a result Great Yarmouth is within the top 10 per cent of the most deprived areas in England and Wales.

Undoubtedly, there are people who are either wealthy or have a comfortable standard of living, but equally there are many who live on the poverty line, or just above. Indeed, poverty is not something confined to the inner cities of the north of England.

There has been a great deal of difficulty in finding what is called ‘affordable housing’ as the expansion in the number of holiday and second homes has made the situation difficult. There are villages within the borough where locally-born people cannot afford to rent or buy homes, a situation that’s also true of north Norfolk and places in Suffolk such as Aldeburgh, all of them within easy reach of London.

Golden era?

At the meeting, the Defend Council Housing speaker harked back to some golden era of council provision which seemed to strike a chord with many there. Apparently this was in the 1950s and early 1960s before high rise flats became the norm, when the work was carried out by time-served craftsmen employed by the direct works departments of local councils. These, he said, employed apprentices to learn how to become the craftsmen of the future, ensuring a high measure of quality control. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there ever really was such a golden era.

He also argued that council housing was regarded as a community asset under the democratic control of the community via the council. Housing associations were presented as dupes of Thatcherite politics; whereas once they provided housing for small neglected groups, they had been hi-jacked as a means of injecting the profit motive into social housing.

In response, Tony Wright said that, while he wasn’t opposed to council housing, there were other ways of providing affordable housing. He was fairly vague about what the other means were, but housing associations appeared to play a role. Indeed, he pointed out that under Harold Wilson – who appears to be strongly approved of down this way – the Labour Party did not oppose the sale of council housing. The difference was that councils had the right to refuse to sell their houses, and there weren’t huge discounts to encourage people to buy. Also, the money made from council house sales was used to build more council houses.

There appeared to be a consensus that councils ought be able to build more houses; that these should be exempt from ‘right to buy’ schemes; that capital receipts from sales should be ploughed back into building and improving council stock; and that discounts should be removed. In essence, this was a call to return to the past.

Some people did call for a ‘mixed economy’, encompassing council housing, cheap homes for first time buyers, housing association properties and co-operative housing.

Initially, co-operative housing was described as one of the most cost-effective forms of social housing, allowing greater tenant control than other forms, more affordable rents than housing associations, and the chance to develop members’ transferable skills. However, while the speaker from Defend Council Housing was not exactly against housing co-ops, he did have a rather patronising attitude, one that I suspect is held by many on the left. Effectively, he dismissed them as being of marginal interest to a few minority groups, saying they are unable to co-ordinate or raise capital to build new homes. He also said that the tenants’ reps on housing trusts were, at worst, willing accomplices of the big business interests that now control housing associations and, at best, stooges of the same interests.

Democratic lines

It did not go down well when both I and Tony Wright pointed out that there is a difference between housing trusts, where tenant reps are only a minority of the governing boards, and housing co-operatives which are run on democratic lines and where control lies entirely with member-tenants. Nor was it welcome when it was pointed out that in Canada some 25 per cent of social housing is provided by housing co-ops and that an equally large co-operative sector exists in German and, Scandinavia. There, housing co-ops are far from marginal and cater for much more than marginal concerns.

Unfortunately, there was not a mass conversion to the idea of housing co-operatives. Much needs to be done to encourage the growth of this type of housing provision in this part of the UK. There does appear to be a measure of support for traditional council housing to meet the needs of people in East Anglia who can’t afford to get on the home ownership ladder. That said, there are people who are interested in housing co-ops, but it will be a long time before anything significant happens.

On a positive note, I found it interesting to attend a Labour Party meeting where there was some political debate, rather than the normal run-of-the-mill administrative work. More disappointing was the turn-out – there could not have been more than two dozen people and the average age was not more than 30.

Although the consensus was in favour of council housing, there did not seem to be much willingness to develop ideas about how such housing could be provided in the future. Most people seemed to think it adequate to offer more of the same.

While it is obviously important to provide more new homes that are not expensive, the issue of democratic control of these community assets was not fully explored. People appeared to be wary of anything that did not fit neatly in with what they thought of as ‘a golden age’.

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