Asking tenants to move is not 'social cleansing', it's common sense - Councillor John Blundell

I was brought up in a council house. It had a front and back garden, three bedrooms and a combi-boiler. Honestly, what more could you ask for? Mrs May’s government made a big song and dance at the Tory Party Conference about their £2billion promise to build more social homes. I sincerely hope it is not too little too late, our society needs good quality houses for those who the market does not provide for, but what can we do locally to help solve the problem?

The demise of social housing has been long in the making. It began with Mrs Thatcher flogging them off on the cheap and reducing the funding available to councils to reinvest in stock. Then came the New Labour government, for whom social housing did not fit given its overriding focus on the so-called ‘aspirational classes’. David Cameron made it his mission to solve the issue of sink estates, but what was his answer? Provide grants to knock them down. 

Families (like my own) that once needed three bedroomed houses but had since reduced in size were encouraged to move into more appropriate accommodation through the levying of punitive taxes; this became known as the ‘bedroom tax’. This policy has impoverished many trapped in housing that they can not get out of, because many housing groups simply do not have the right mix of houses for the varying sizes of families. 

Why do northern working class areas have to do all the heavy lifting?

When dealing with asylum seekers the government follow a very simple procedure: find the cheapest possible housing — typically in areas like North Manchester — in which to concentrate them so as to reduce the cost of meeting their basic human needs. The government gives them as little money as possible to live on and then expects them to behave like good citizens and become upstanding members of the community. The Tory government’s treatment of these people is despicable.  

The result has been that there are more asylum seekers in Rochdale and Bolton than there are in the entire south-east of England. They have every right to be here, but why don’t the people of Richmond-Upon-Thames or Tisbury share some of the burden? Why do northern working class areas have to do all the heavy lifting? 

Expanding the stock of social housing has not been on politicians’ radars for the simple reason that they look down on it. The New Labour government, although they invested heavily in redeveloping council estates, shared Mrs Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy. The idea that nurses and teachers would occupy social housing became laughable. The sink estate was born.

171010 Manchester Piccadilly Satelitte Image
Manchester Piccadilly: sell high value council homes and build elsewhere Zoom Earth

The property-owning democratic dream never really took off, instead the demise of social housing began. It has been shown up for the empty piece of political sloganeering that it has always been. The majority of the housing stock sold off to realise this ‘dream’ found its way into the hands of the capitalist classes. Government after government have presided over the further dwindling of the social housing stock, leaving us in the parlous situation in which we find ourselves today. 

How can we begin to address the problems that afflict social housing in Britain in 2017? I see three main ways of making the stock work better for tenants:

First, diversify demand by cleaning up social housing’s image set by the Daily Mail. Set clear limits on the amount of asylum seekers and refugees big business can house in one area, these people should not to be dumped in convenient locations for profiteers and better consideration should be paid to their needs. People who often blame these unfortunate people should blame Amber Rudd. Tied to this are social housing providers' allocations policies. Social housing groups should be encouraging people from all walks of life to live in their homes.

...the idea that the estate has to be there as a beacon of social justice for Manchester's elites to gawp at is bollocks

Second, increase supply (and democracy) by selling expensive land. It is often referred to as ‘social cleansing’ but it can be the best way to expand the current stock. For example, the land around Piccadilly Station and the Airport (areas with vast swathes of council and ex-council homes) when HS2 arrives in Manchester will see big increases in land value. Sell the land and some stock, and with the capital raised build elsewhere where land is cheaper - not necessarily the city centre. We can not ignore this option. 

We could do the same in the city centre in general, make the boom work for social tenants. This would work particularly well if the housing associations were co-ops and tenants made the decisions. Tenants will be well aware the land they sit on is worth a lot in some areas and could use it to their advantage by refusing to be pushed out without considerable assurances. I am fond of the cooperative housing model; we should scrap boards and empower tenants.

For example, the people of the Islington estate in Salford may feel differently about the prospect of having to move if it was them making the decision. I am certain many will disagree with me but taking advantage of the increase in the values of land could be used to build more social homes if new forms of governance were adopted and these decisions were democratised. To be clear, I am not promoting the notion we should knock down the estate, and I am sure some people living their are very fond of it, but at the same time the idea it has to be there as a beacon of social justice for Manchester's elites to gawp at is bollocks. 

170801 Danny Moran Social Cleansing Islington Estate
Islington Estate, Salford

And third, make the stock work harder by having a variety of tenancies and a Greater Manchester-wide allocations policy. The barriers between switching housing groups are simply too many, all Greater Manchester housing associations should be forced into having one waiting list. There are plenty of quality homes across our city region and moving to Rochdale or Oldham or Bolton is not social cleansing, it should at least be offered. I am not saying you have to move to Merseyside, and I find it offensive to be told a former city centre dweller living amongst my neighbours or constituents in Rochdale has been 'socially cleansed'.  

Often lost in this debate are the communities that so often thrive in areas that have concentrations of people with lower incomes. Every effort must be made to find suitable accommodation as close as possible to people’s social ties, but sometimes people’s circumstances change. Strong communities are dynamic; they do not stand still and they are not as colloquial as you would be led to believe by Manchester’s liberals.

If we are to reverse the demise of social housing in this country, then we need to start to cherish it once more. We must see it for what it is: a valuable public asset. I am fed up of reading article after article depicting social-housing tenants as people trapped by certain circumstances. They don’t need or want your pity; instead they need practical solutions to the housing shortage.

When it comes to housing, we have failed the people of this country for too long. And as Theresa May is perhaps beginning to find out, time is running out to solve the problem. £2billion is just window dressing and continued failure is likely to be met with a very real public backlash. Brexit could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg. America ended up with Trump, we might end up with Katie Hopkins.

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John Blundell is a graduate of economics at the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Borough Council at the age of 20. He has worked as a transport and development economist both in London and Manchester. 

He campaigns on trying to change the life chances of young people both through literacy and art but is now using his professional skills to better inform the debate on city economics in Greater Manchester.