Aneurin Bevan said that priorities were the language of socialism. How might Bevan apply his dictum to the the newly erupted debate on selling council houses in posh areas, using the money raised to build social housing in less prosperous areas?back
A health warning. Back in the 1960s I tried to persuade the Wilson and Callaghan governments to sell council houses. I believed the policy to be right and that it would help reposition the Labour Party as the party of the aspiring class.
We all know the result. Civil servants told the Labour government that the policy could not work. Mrs T came in and told them to find a way of making it work.
My original idea was to increase the amount of national income devoted to housing. All the revenue raised from sales was to be invested into building more social housing. We all know the results.
Policy Exchange, which has published these new proposals, will not be surprised that, with this track record, the centre-left is deeply cautious about another drive to sell more social housing. But, nevertheless,we should not close down the debate.
Our starting point should be with that guidance from Aneurin Bevan. We are not in a perfect world. Room to manoeuvre is limited, and will remain so even if, tomorrow, a Labour government takes over.
Two issues seem key. If we sell off social housing in rich areas are we not taking another step towards even more segregated communities? Secondly, can we guarantee that all the revenue will even go into new social homes?
I would like to think that having social housing in the richest areas leads to greater social equality. In theory it should. As a goal I could not fault it. But it is very difficult to find it working in practice.
The other question is whether we trust the government to spend the money raised to build more social housing? The government is desperate to get some growth in the economy and a house building programme could help. Their fear of meeting voters at the next election I think would ensure that the money was not tampered with.
So, as Bevan knew only too well, making priorities can sometimes be anything but clear cut. I would like to see more social housing built and I would like to keep existing social housing in rich areas.
My choice is to welcome the idea from Policy Exchange. Maybe in the first instance we should look to make savings in the private rented sector. Secondly the government should look carefully at its plans to remove the requirement for developers to offer a proportion of new build schemes at affordable prices.
But, in the end, we have to choose. In the detailed political debate that should now follow, the balance of the arguments may change. The devil of any argument is in the detail. But embracing the detail, with the possibility of building more social housing, is surely worth the risk.