When a politician declares that the mistakes of the past must not be repeated, it’s time to press the panic button, stock up with tinned food and redecorate the bunker.
This week it was Ruth Kelly’s turn. The communities secretary took a scythe to social housing - what’s left of it - and trumpeted that there would be more help for council tenants to buy a stake in their properties.
Interesting that the party whose policy was once symbolised by Herbert Morrison’s pledge to ‘build the Tories out of London’ should now have swallowed whole the belief that social housing, because it isn’t the solution, must therefore be the problem.
If the tenants can’t afford to buy elsewhere, the reasoning goes, let’s give them a stake in what they have.
Council estates aren’t problematic because of their tenure. They become problems when they are neglected, and when so-called ‘needs based’ lettings policies are pursued with such mechanistic myopia that the people with the most intractable problems are lumped together in the worst estates.
What’s worrying is that Ms Kelly has seen fit to treat a malady that needs the long-term therapy of community investment with the blunt instrument of the private market.
So before we all cry whoopee at the prospect of giving council tenants a 10% stake in their homes to prevent them being ‘left behind’, let’s examine the primrose path before them.
Ms Kelly has no excuse, because only the day before her announcement, her own department issued figures that demonstrate succinctly what’s happening in the housing market.
In short, it’s careering away from people’s ability to pay: annual house price inflation rose from 8.8% last November to 9.9% in December.
What has been sold to us as a chance to own assets and protect ourselves against the future has turned out to be a Faustian pact with the lending industry.
Latest figures from Credit Action show that at the end of December, we in the UK owed a total of £1,078bn, secured on our homes.
Each household pays an average of £3,400 a year on debt interest.
That’s the reality of the property-owning democracy.
The way towards cohesive communities isn’t to make affordable housing the tenure of last resort. It’s to temper our obsession with ownership and remove the stigma from social housing.
Ruth Kelly’s approach, unfortunately, will have the opposite effect.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine