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Comment: ‘Why council housing is key to solving the housing crisis’

Donnybrook Quarter by Peter Barber Architects in Bow, east London  (Morley von Sternberg)
Donnybrook Quarter by Peter Barber Architects in Bow, east London (Morley von Sternberg)

Could there be a more apposite time for A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates, by social housing historian John Boughton, to hit shelves?

In a week when we’ve seen the full horror of the conditions in which refugees are being detained in Kent, while private renters are grappling with a dizzyingly expensive and competitive market, a book that opens with a discussion of adequate housing as a human right touches a nerve.

Racist rhetoric loves to make a direct link between the two scenarios, blaming “invading” immigrants for soaring housing costs.

But house prices have risen inexorably over the years, regardless of fluctuations in net migration numbers, while house-building has been at less than half the level needed for years.

According to Boughton, in 1980 Britain had more than five million council homes, housing almost one third of the population.

Right to Buy put paid to that, introduced by the Thatcher government that saw public housing as a problem, rather than a solution.

But by allowing council housing to come so close to extinction, we’ve lost an essential species in our housing ecosystem, with knock-on effects for renters and home buyers as much as for those on council waiting lists.

Recent state support has largely involved subsidising £600,000 flats via Help to Buy, or miserly ‘affordable’ housing provision tacked on to expensive developments.

Boughton’s book learns from both the successes and the failures of the past. It also sees hope for the future in an emerging state-led house-building programme delivering attractive, sustainable, liveable homes for all.

A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates, by John Boughton, £40 from RIBA Books