Addressing the Democratic Deficit                                    home                                                                                                 
Sept 2007    
Green Paper on Affordable Housing

The three main pillars of post-war Labour policy were health, education and housing.  But by the mid 1970s, housing had slipped down the agenda.  Rising living standards had brought home ownership within the reach of millions for the first time.  After 1980, council house sales were a big factor too.  Owner-occupation rose from 50% to the present level of about 70%.  The result was that most peoplesí interest in housing tended to end at their front door; no-one else mattered.  But new house building has not kept up with the demand.  Prices have rocketed as have rents meaning that young couples can no longer afford a place of their own.  T he only solution is to build more homes.  The Green Paper proposes a big increase in house building; much of it affordable.  This is good news. Releasing surplus government land will be a great help too.  The Paper majors on financial, planning issues etc but very little thought is given to the people who are going to live in these new homes. The main emphasis of the Paper is on promoting individual home ownership; common ownership alternatives like housing co-ops and mutual etc are ignored.  Involving tenants in the management of their homes is not considered.  The democratic deficit in social housing is ignored.

  The governmentís attitude towards owning and renting is one-sided.  Owner-occupation is lauded whilst renting is seen in merely welfare terms.  Itís assumed that everyone wants to be an owner-occupier.  But is this true?  People who are homeless or living in bad housing want a decent home of their own at a price they can afford.  Ownership is not so important.  Given the low wages culture that persists in this country, itís dishonest to pretend that everyone can become an owner-occupier.  Up to 70% of social housing tenants are on housing benefit.  They can just about afford the rent.  The idea that they could buy their own property is fanciful.  Recently ministers have suggested shared ownership schemes where the tenant owns as little as 10% of the equity.  Is that really owner-occupation or just PR?  Common ownership schemes involving mutual or co-operative ownership would be more suitable. 

Everywhere council housing is disappearing as local councils transfer their housing stock to housing associations and the like.  Others have set up armís length management organisations (ALMOs) where stock transfer was not possible.  Housing management is out-sourced to these not-for-profit organisations whose job is to bring the accommodation up to the new Decent Homes Standard i.e. new kitchens, new bathrooms etc.   ALMO tenants have a third of the seats on the Board which gives them a real say.  Looking to the future, many ALMOs will have achieved the Decent Homes Standard by 2010.  What happens then?  Some councils want to bring housing management back in house.  A better solution would be for the ALMO to develop into a mutual.  ALMO tenants still retain the Right to Manage so they could decide to convert the ALMO into a Community Gateway association.  When the Community Gateway association is set up all the tenants are encouraged to become members who then elect the Gateway committee.  Tenant board members are drawn from this committee.  As they form the largest group on the board they have a big say in policy-making.  Currently there are four Community Gateway schemes in England and two similar ones in Wales .  Ballots are pending for several more.  When a council transfers its stock the tenants automatically lose their Right to Manage.  But as councils canít transfer their estates without a YES vote from the tenants they have to improve tenant participation before going for ballot.  More go-ahead councils have supported the Community Gateway model.  When stock transfer is being planned, the Community Gateway option should be made available. 

A Mutual Home Ownership scheme (MHO) consists of a housing co-op working in conjunction with a community land trust.  The trust owns the land which will have been gifted to it by a statutory agency or local organisation.  That stops future speculation.  The co-op then builds the housing which is leased to individual members.  On leaving, they receive a part of the rise in the value of their homes since moving in.  Costs are reduced because there are no land costs, low legal fees and the tenants control day-to-day expenditure.  As the housing is co-operatively owned it canít be sold off.  Fourteen community land trusts are to be piloted; seven in rural areas and seven in urban areas.  English Partnerships are supporting the pilot MHO scheme in Gloucestershire.  It is being developed in partnership with CDS Co-operatives.   All the options described above are available; some like the Community Gateway schemes are already up and running.  MHO schemes will soon follow.  The co-operative movement has a lot to offer in the housing field.  All that is needed is some imagination on part of those in government.


This article was first published in the Co-op News