Do Co-operators care about the homeless?


October 2003
Do Co-operators care about the homeless?  Do they care about the fact that thousands of families with children have to live in squalid bed and breakfast hotels?  Do they worry that so many young couples find it impossible to find affordable flats and have to live with their in-laws?  Many do but far too many donít.  In years gone by, the three key issues that the Labour movement fought for were health, housing and education.  After all Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS, was not only Minister of Health but also Minister of Housing.  Since then, housing has slipped down the political agenda.  Nowadays more people own their own homes.  In the UK today, nearly 70% of homes are in owner occupation.  Thatís a good thing provided they can afford it  But it has meant that many peopleís interest in housing nowadays often stops at their own front door.  Those who canít afford to buy are often forgotten.  This attitude spans the whole social spectrum from residents in the affluent leafy middle class suburbs to the former council tenants who exercised their right to buy.  Most Labour Party and Co-op members will agree on the need to provide more affordable housing; ie social housing.  However, when one suggests that it needs to be built near them the support often becomes at best lukewarm if not downright hostile.  Usually arguments about over-development or the unsuitability of higher densities are advanced.  The schools and other public services couldnít cope. What about the environment etc?

Harold Campbell Court Co-op in Dartford, Kent

Some times people are a bit more frank.   You get comments like, ďPeople around here donít want social housing.  They know itíll go to asylum  seekers or social security scroungers.  It wonít be going to our kids etcí.  Although these arguments are completely bogus, too many people believe them.  It is up to all of us in the Labour and Co-operative movement to nail these lies and point out that housing allocation is done solely on the basis of housing need.  The real scandal is the shortage of affordable housing and the fact that, after six years of a Labour government, house building is still at its lowest level since 1927 excluding the war years.
But attitudes are changing, at least at government level.  In the recently published Sustainable Communities Plan produced by Deputy PM John Prescott the government has committed itself to a substantial house building programme. For example, here in London and the South East, some two hundred thousand new homes are promised.  A high proportion of that will be social housing.  But who will manage the estates?  The answer is housing associations and mainly the big ones.  Where does that leave the tenants?  In how many housing associations do the tenants have any real say in what goes on.  Very few.  Some associations have tenants on the board but itís mostly tokenism.  The answer is to give the tenants real power by introducing tenant management and tenant ownership schemes.  Here the co-operative movement has a lot to offer.  Independent studies have shown that the management of existing co-operative estates is usually superior to that in municipal housing.  People feel a sense of ownership so the estates are better maintained and there is less petty crime and vandalism. 
The Co-operative Party has always given strong support to the co-operative housing sector.  So it was good to see, at this yearís Party Conference in Newcastle , the Party adopt a much more detailed programme of practical proposals which address the need to improve the provision of social housing in general and co-operative housing in particular.  It should build on this.  It would make an excellent policy document.  Also, there have been some encouraging moves within the co-op consumer sector.  At the recent AGM of the Co-operative Group, a motion calling on that Society to promote the co-operative housing sector was passed unanimously.  Letís hope that this imaginative initiative will be successful.  The Co-op Group is the biggest consumer co-op in the UK so its support is vital. 
That being said, one should not forget the valuable support the Co-op Bank (part of the Group) has given to co-operative housing over many years.  Importantly, the Co-op Group initiative was not a top-down one but came from its own grass roots members.  Thatís the co-operative way.  Perhaps the members of the other 40 consumer co-ops should follow suit and join members of the Co-op Group in campaigning for co-operative housing.  I urge all members of all the independent regional societies to go along to their members meetings and put the case for co-operative housing.  In that way they will be helping people in desperate housing need.  Surely in the 21st century, every family should have the right to live in decent home?

This article was first published in the Co-op News

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