Wednesday Picture: ‘Stop Selling Council Houses’

Last week’s article by Tim Sowula, ‘Are we all being priced out?’ kicked off a reader debate about council versus private housing. And then we saw this banner yesterday

Stop selling council houses, Southampton Road NW5
The protest banner dominated the parade on Southampton Road, NW5. Pic: Stephen Emms
This striking image, snapped on Southampton Road in Gospel Oak yesterday morning, caught our eyes in the wake of last week’s hotly-debated essay by Tim Sowula, who has just moved out of the area after being born and bred here.

The protest banner was hanging above the former Party Party, a once-successful three-outlet store now closed in what has become a rather sorry parade. The juxtaposition of faded balloons and statement was quite powerful: as we passed, men waiting to get their hair cut at Palushi’s stood looking up at it, while next door an estate agent hovered nervously in the doorway, awaiting prospective buyers.

Turns out the two protesters –  who were making their message clear after the recent sale by Camden Council of three houses on the parade for £2.4 million – have since been charged under anti-squatting laws for “squatting in a residential council property”.

"Young kids being made homeless by Camden gestapo" Graffiti on Talacre Road, 1974. Photo: Jeremy Ross
‘Young kids being made homeless by Camden gestapo’: graffiti on Talacre Road, 1974.
Photo: Jeremy Ross

The image reminded us of the pictures (left) taken in the 1970s by photographer Jeremy Ross, which we have featured in stories on squatting and the Overground here.

Which all leads us to the current lively debate on this site about house prices, and whether or not the council should sell its stock. Last week, reader Tally kicked things off with a comment suggesting that scarcity affects housing prices:

“The lovely Victorian road we live on is 70% owned by the council, 30% private,” she said. “So there’s hardly any housing stock on the market. Who suffers in this climate? People who aren’t given state support. We bought here three years ago. We’re not foreign millionaires. We’re a young couple with our first child on the way. We are mortgaged to the hilt and work three jobs between the two of us. We love the area but can’t help but feel something isn’t quite right about the fact that in a few years when we have a family, the only houses suitable for us will cost in the region of a million pounds, while we see our state-supported neighbours with five kids living in houses we can only ever dream about living in.”

Tally believes that if the council allowed the area to be “slightly more mixed, ie, 60% council 40% private or even a 50/50 split”, housing prices would go down “as there wouldn’t be so many people looking at so few houses. Also, the money the council could generate by selling off some expensive-to-maintain period properties could be used to build new social housing in the area for greater numbers of people. Is it really fair that people who work hard but don’t earn that much are pushed out in favour of those living from the state?”

Her viewpoint caused quite a debate. “I was wondering how long it would be before council house tenants would be to blame,” said Dean. “Why should they be punished for living in a now desirable area, despite living through the years when an area was a shithole?”

This opinion was echoed by Tom: “So you are advocating pushing people who have made their lives in Kentish Town out because it has become a desirable place to live? At what point would tenants in an area be evicted so more wealthy folks could move in? It’s worth noting that when a house on a popular road went on sale a couple of weeks ago, 70 people went to see it and it eventually sold for 25% over the asking price, so the council couldn’t release stock quickly enough to bring prices down.”

Regular commenter Julianator maintains that the council doesn’t need to push people out. “But it should seek to sell off certain high-value properties as their tenancies end (through death or people leaving the area), and use the cash to build higher-density modern housing elsewhere. That would help the area to stay fresh while encouraging aspiration and enabling young families to move in.”

Meanwhile, Andy agreed with Tally, arguing that the same was happening in Hackney: “40% of the stock is social housing. The shortage of private houses really pushes up the price of the remaining stock. It’s pretty bizarre living in a street where a long-term unemployed person gets to live in a very valuable home on full benefits, whilst a private tenant or homeowner, in an identical property next door, has to works all hours to get by, and often pays four times as much for their efforts.”

sellingphoto close HD“Scarcity breeds scapegoats,” said Elizabeth, quoting Kentish Town housing campaigner, the late Alan Walters. “The lack of affordable is not the fault of your neighbours who live in council housing. The stock has massively decreased in the past decades since ‘right to buy’ was introduced. Unless your neighbours are receiving housing benefit they are not ‘living from the state’. If some of them do get housing benefit at least the money is then staying in the system rather than lining the pockets of, or paying the mortgage of, private landlords and property investors.”

Council housing rents are paid into something called the Housing Revenue Account, Elizabeth explained. “It’s a general misconception that somehow council housing costs are paid from general taxation. Central government over the years have in fact ‘top sliced’ this fund (kept some of the money) and also prevented councils from being able to reinvest receipts from ‘right to buy’ sales in more housing.

“The sale of council housing does not make more affordable housing available; quite the reverse. In the past it was the ‘working poor’ who were often given priority for social housing. Your ‘lovely Victorian street’ was quite possibly bought up by the council in the 60s/70s when it was a rather less lovely street of slum houses owned by unscrupulous landlords – as was the previously privately owned now council estate that I live on.”

Elizabeth says that over the years the ‘privatisation’ of her estate through both right-to-buy sales and “regeneration” has certainly made more properties available to buy, “but many are owned by investors letting them for very high rents with no security for the tenants. The 70% you quote is not typical across Camden where tenures are divided almost in thirds (council and housing association/ privately rented/owner occupied).”

And finally, she offered a note of caution. “Selling off empty council properties, high value or not, has been tried in Camden. Ultimately, although you could make an economic argument for it, there is always the whiff, intentional or not of social cleansing. And where exactly in Camden would you build these cheaper homes? Luckily it’s not easy for councils to sell off these public assets in this way, and if they do, it wouldn’t help lower income buyers anyway as they would have to raise as much money as possible.”

Read the full article and the dozens of reader comments here. What do you think?

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  • Mad Dog

    Here here – stop selling council houses and invest in building more!

  • Theo Blackwell (@camdentheo)

    The protest is utterly mistaken. The properties you are writing about actually aren’t council homes, they are flats which were rented as part of the commercial leases to the shopowners. No one from the housing waiting list would therefore live in one. While i have sympathy with the point they are making, the protesters shouldve checked the public record before storming in and costing taxpayers more cash. The council doesn’t flog council homes, it builds them- 1100 new council homes in the next 4 years, the biggest programme since the 1970s. Because the government only funds 1% of our investment need we have to use our own land to tackle the housing crisis. The sale of these old buildings will help fund new homes, you can see a project at Bacton just down the road where this is happening.

  • NW5 (@nw5)

    The simplest and fairest way to quickly increase the supply of council housing to those most in need, is to regularly means test current recipients.

    If someone’s financial circumstances have signficantly improved, it’s only fair they vacate and support themselves in the private sector.

    It’s pretty sickening to see someone with a 4×4 and satellite dish living in a subsidised flat, when so many of us are struggling. The great irony is that Labour apparently rejects this idea, you know, “to each according to their need”, etc.