Steve Richards: The politics of housing is complicated. But the solution is simple: build more homes

The sale of council homes has been a catastrophe. It deprived Britain of affordable rented housing
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The Independent Online

Periodically Tony Blair offers peculiar advice to his successor and the candidates for Labour's deputy leadership. In several speeches he has told them to stay away from what he calls the Party's "comfort zone".

This is a revealing phrase that merits further examination. Presumably Mr Blair is warning candidates they should not utter a word that places them a millimetre to the left of his own position. He seems to suggest that such a move would please the Labour party but alarm the wider electorate. By contrast he implies that he has followed the sweaty uncomfortable route, making the tough decisions on behalf of the country even if they infuriated his party.

Yet Mr Blair has his own comfort zone, one to which he happily returns on a regular basis. He was in it during his visit to Washington last week, especially during his farewell press conference with President Bush.

For Mr Blair the event was a double whammy in its comforting embrace. There he was in the glamorous garden of the White House standing next to the most powerful leader in the world, still getting a visible buzz at his proximity to such intoxicating power.

As a bonus he was able at the same time to say how tough it had been for him to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the President: What blissful comfort! Mr Blair had calculated long ago that opposing President Bush would make him more unpopular than being a big player next to him. His earlier miscalculation allows him to claim political courage now while enjoying himself still in the role of the President's mighty ally.

On the domestic front Mr Blair's comfort zone forbids explanations or prescriptions that take Labour even fleetingly close to its beliefs and values of the 1980s. As a result he offers no detailed left-of-centre analysis of that revolutionary decade. Instead Mr Blair makes the generalised observation that Margaret Thatcher did some good and necessary things, but she was too harsh and uncaring. That tends to complete his analysis.

The problem with this comfortable interpretation is that in some cases the so-called good policies had harsh and uncaring consequences. The outcomes cannot be neatly separated from the original policies. This difficult, demanding link between policies and their consequences led us out of Mr Blair's comfort zone and into a more challenging world. It is tough, a place where orthodoxy and prejudice must be challenged. Mr Blair rarely goes there.

Nowhere is this zone tougher than in relation to the greatest totemic policy of the lot, the sale of council homes. The questioning of the policy is taboo. Virtually across Labour there is consensus that the party's opposition to council house sales was the ultimate symbol of its vote- losing years in the wilderness.

So let us leave Labour's comfort zone as well as the one occupied defensively by Tony Blair and state what is increasingly obvious. The sale of council homes has been a catastrophe. At a stroke the policy deprived Britain of affordable rented housing. Homes were sold off too cheaply and soon became available on what was an already soaring private property market. Few new homes were built.

On every front in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher was never interested in building, but in changing patterns of ownership, a much cheaper policy. As in several other areas Labour was slow to challenge its Thatcherite inheritance. Mr Blair was too busy in his comfort zone.

So now we have the contrast of two decades. In the depressed, supposedly nightmarish 1970s one hundred thousand new affordable homes were built every year. In the booming, fun-loving 21st century only a handful are constructed. This is madness.

Part of the reason for the madness is that the politics of housing are more challenging than the substance. The populist arguments all point in one direction: "Set the tenants free!" Even now many Labour figures argue that the social homes they have built should be sold off. Heading for Blair's comfort zone they opt for safe arguments about a home-owning society, a policy that gives them easy hits.

Mrs Thatcher proved that point. She was often filmed having a cup of tea with a former council tenant. For her it was the perfect political contortion, the right-wing Prime Minister setting the working classes free. In reality she was doing nothing of the sort. Mrs Thatcher was never filmed with those families living in squalor waiting for rented accommodation that was not being built or had been transferred to the private sector.

Policies have consequences. If a grammar school is established it will be a success. The schools nearby, deprived of the selected intake, will be useless. For every happy former tenant there are hundreds in despair about their housing prospects.

All the minor housing stories whirling around at the moment are ripples on a bigger tide that began to erupt in the 1980s. Margaret Hodge calls for the indigenous population to have housing priority over immigrants. Yet immigrants take up less than 1 per cent of social housing. That is not the issue. What she was really doing was screaming at the overall lack of affordable housing.

The cock- ups over the Housing Information Packs are another ripple moving off in another direction. The government knows it has to intervene in the impossibly booming housing market, but does not know which levers to pull any more. It is lost somewhere in a comfort zone that offers no guidance about intervening on the ground.

Yesterday's report from the National Audit Office on the ambitious Thames Gateway project is much more damning in its implications than the fuss over well-meaning HIPs. The Thames Gateway aims to establish 160,000 new homes by 2016. Yet the audit office warns of a lack of co-ordination and direction by the government in its dealings with a plethora of local agencies. It calls for a step change in the operation. Here is another modern project, like the railways, where too many bodies are involved. Everyone is responsible so no one is responsible.

The politics of housing is complicated but the solution is simple. Thousands more homes must be built in the Thames Gateway and elsewhere. Councils must be allowed to build some of them. Just because they were hopeless landlords in the past does not mean they have to be as bad now.

There will be screams of "not in my backyard" when new homes are proposed. But as both Labour and the Conservatives claim to recognise the crisis there is the chance of cross-party resistance to the screams. This is a test too for the Conservatives' leadership that tends to posture in a progressive manner and then vote against progressive measures.

Housing takes political parties and leaders out of their comfort zones. Yet it must be addressed or life will become uncomfortable for everyone, including those lucky enough to own preposterously valuable homes.