The English disease

The decline of low-cost rented housing is a feature of the
decline of the private-rented sector as a whole. It has been losing
market share rapidly through the whole of the 20th century. This is
not a problem for which parties should blame each other. It is a
weakness of our 20th century political culture.

This is a problem that has not happened to any equivalent extent in
any other country in Europe. Indeed, I believe it has not happened
to an equivalent extent in any other country in the UK. It is an
English problem. As early as 1832, the first Reform Act failed to
establish an adequate county electorate in Scotland because the
English addiction to freehold ownership never spread north of the

The political treatment of the private-rented sector has taken in
the two deepest weaknesses of English political culture in the 20th
century: the obsessive conflict of class, and the clash between
public and private ownership. The whole history of rent control
since 1919 has been one long political yo-yo. It is no wonder that
landlords have tended to put their money into something

Housing as a whole has never been something fully suited either to
the market or to public ownership. A pure unregulated market has
tended to produce rich neighbourhoods that create a demand for
cheap labour, which can only be satisfied in slum quarters from
which cholera and typhoid have spread out into the rich
neighbourhoods. A solution of pure planning, on the other hand, has
never had the flexibility to fit an economy whose patterns of
growth have shown wide and unexpected geographical variations.
Clearly, housing needs a blend of market and non-market approaches.
Yet as recently as the debates on the Housing Bill of 1988, this
question was still approached on both sides with echoing cries of
“four legs good: two legs bad”. Nobody ever stopped to ask the key
question: good for what?

The desire to own one’s home is clearly a deep one, which is not
confined to England. It is probably snobbery that, in England, has
given it a bite which it does not appear to have had in any other
European country. The policy of selling council houses therefore
tapped into the desire to join the upper classes.

Yet what is politically irresistible is not always politically
useful. I have never, in general, been an admirer of Labour MP Bob
Mellish, yet one of the best political speeches I have ever heard
was made by him in 1967, when the sale of council houses was only a
Conservative fantasy. The cold economic calculation of what the
sales might raise and of the cost of replacing the houses was
chilling. Labour MP Frank Field’s book of 1989, Losing Out, showed
that Bob Mellish’s fears had come true. Once the sales were
complete, only the failures were left.

The concept of the sink estate, barely known in the 1950s and early
60s, is now all too familiar and there is clear postcode
discrimination in the award of jobs. There were many faults in the
traditional council house, but within the limits of regular
grumbling, it worked. Essential workers could live near their work,
and people on social security benefits did not need to own cars to
be employable.

It is probably too late to save the private-rented sector as a
whole, though we must cherish what is left of it. What we need now
is council houses that cannot be sold, where the pressure is
political and not commercial. That way, we would not have to depend
on the vagaries of housing corporation funding, where new rules can
knock the bottom out of a registered social landlord’s world at no

At the same time, we must avoid the dangers of monopoly power,
where one party knew, however badly it ruled, it would control the
council till kingdom come.

I once knew a council election settled entirely on failure to
repair window frames: in a heatwave of 90 degrees, none of them
could be opened. Yet this can only happen in councils that can
change hands. If we go back to council houses, we must have no more
councils such as Newham, where Labour holds 98 per cent of the
seats on 66 per cent of the votes; Sutton, where Liberal Democrats
hold 80 per cent of the seats on 50 per cent of the votes; or
Wandsworth, where Conservatives hold 83 per cent of the seats on 54
per cent of the votes. Council housing can only be accountable if
we have proportional representation in local government. We need
them both together.

Conrad Russell is Liberal Democrat social security
spokesperson and professor of British history, King’s College,

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