Sheila Gilmore welcomes the commitment in Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech to the regeneration of truly affordable housing.

 

For a housing ‘geek’ like myself it was good to hear housing issues given priority in Jeremy’s speech to conference. A commitment to regeneration ensuring that equal numbers of truly affordable homes would replace what was knocked down was very welcome.  By truly affordable I mean low-rent council or housing association homes, sometimes collectively referred to as ‘social’ housing, a term I don’t like.

Edinburgh Council in the 2000s was doing exactly that, able to do so because we had a Labour Government and a Labour-led Scottish Government too. For example we demolished the three high-rise blocks in Oxgangs , not to ‘gentrify’ but because these blocks were riddled with damp and refurbishing them would have been sending good money after bad. They had had these problems from the beginning. When residents and councillors were making the case for funding I remember one meeting where tenants tossed damp mouldy sheets across a table  towards Margaret Curran (the then Scottish Minister for Communities and Housing) to make their point!

All tenants were given a ‘right to return’ to a new home on the site. In practice not all chose to do so because they got settled where they had moved to (they were not moved into temporary accommodation but into an alternative permanent tenancy, but with the right to return once new houses were ready). But we were able to build the same number of low rent homes as there had been in the flats, so other tenants and aspiring tenants had the benefit.

The key to this is  adequate funding. Properly low-rent housing requires a substantial level of subsidy. Traditionally this has come from government, and this is what enabled Labour in Edinburgh not only to rebuild in Oxgangs but to bring about similar transformations in Hyvots, Southhouse and Moredun as well as in the north of the city.

Since 2007 there has been a change in Scotland. In Edinburgh, demolition of similar high-rise blocks to those in Oxgangs has resulted in a much lower proportion of low rent homes being built, and therefore ‘right to return’ could not be promised. In Pennywell and Sighthill apparently only 25% of the new homes will fall into the low rent category. Admittedly some will still be described as ‘affordable’ , being mid market rent or low cost home ownership.  There is a need for such housing too but it isn’t a substitute for what was taken down.  It should be an addition.

I know my Labour councillor friends are not doing this because they have become ‘neoliberals’ (this part of Corbyn’s speech having been hailed as part of the ending of neoliberalism).  Their choices have been severely constrained by lack of funding. The choice is often either not proceeding with the much needed regeneration and new build, or compromising to get decent quality homes built.

What changed in Scotland in 2007? The SNP became the Scottish Government. Undoubtedly the coming of a Tory-dominated government in 2010 made things worse everywhere.  But here’s the thing: in Scotland we now have extended borrowing and revenue raising powers.  We could be applying this to housing right now.

An incoming UK Labour government too will have to make the resources available to secure the type of regeneration Jeremy spoke about.  The tone and language of the speech made the suggestions sound much more radical than they really are. Much needed and sensible certainly – but perhaps some of us can be permitted a wry smile at the prospect of councils being able again to do  what we were able to do under the ‘New Labour’ government.