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Ipswich Tories should recall Macmillan was the godfather of council housing

PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 September 2017 | UPDATED: 07:11 28 September 2017

New council houses in Ipswich, like these in Bader Close, are some of the best new homes in the town. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

New council houses in Ipswich, like these in Bader Close, are some of the best new homes in the town. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


I missed last week’s full meeting of Ipswich Council as I was soaking in the sights and sounds of the great city of Berlin, but my colleague Emily Townsend did a great job reporting on the row that blew up over the new borough local plan.

Conservative Harold Macmillan was housing minister when millions of council homes were built in the early 1950s. Picture: PA Photo. Conservative Harold Macmillan was housing minister when millions of council homes were built in the early 1950s. Picture: PA Photo.

Opposition Conservative group leader Ian Fisher said the Labour-run borough was putting too much emphasis on social housing, planning to build too many council homes and this was pushing Ipswich down the “league table” of deprived areas.

I’m sorry, but I feel he got this wrong on so many different levels – and I suspect many people in the Conservative Party would also disagree with him on this.

Ipswich is an urban area. Urban areas are always going to attract a higher proportion of deprived people than more rural places.

That is not to say there is no rural poverty. There is, and the Suffolk Foundation did a great job in highlighting that earlier in the year.

It is not to say that everyone who lives in an urban area is deprived. There are parts of Ipswich that are clearly affluent and most of the town’s homes are comfortable and reasonably spacious whether they are owned by their occupier or rented.

But because of the concentration of services in urban areas you will always find more people with deprivation issues living there. It has nothing to do with the number of council houses.

And actually the provision of a good stock of affordable social housing helps to reduce the level of deprivation you will find in an area. Some of the best new homes I’ve seen in Ipswich over recent years have been new council houses which have larger rooms and more space than you’d find in private-sector “starter” homes.

Over the last 30 years Conservatives, and especially Conservatives in local government, seem to have turned away from council housing.

Many local authorities like Suffolk Coastal have got out of providing social housing altogether and hiving off what houses they owned to a housing association (which has changed identity several times in the intervening years).

In Ipswich government restrictions – from both Tory and Labour governments – effectively imposed a moratorium on building new council houses for the best part of 25 years, a moratorium that has only comparatively recently been lifted.

Many Conservatives have a deeply-held suspicion of council houses because they believe that the vast majority of council tenants vote Labour. I’ve never heard them admit it publicly, but in private that is what they believe and when you look at the ward map of Ipswich and compare it with the map of the town’s council estates you can see why they believe that.

However that is not a reasonable justification to oppose council houses per se. You can’t just build homes for your political friends.

And historically Conservative governments did a great deal to provide good high quality council houses in the years both before and after the Second World War.

Before he became Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his name as Minister of Housing in Winston Churchill’s government in the early 1950s, It was during his term of office that many of the Ipswich council estates including homes in Chantry, Whitton, Priory Heath, and Rushmere went up.

Did he think that council housing was increasing deprivation? No – for him and most of his fellow Conservatives at the time council housing was a ladder out of deprivation.

Look at the worst housing today. Is that social housing, either owned by housing associations or local councils? No. It is privately-rented housing where landlords only provide the minimum facilities for the maximum rent.

Many “market rental” properties provide good homes – but in many cases the rent is so high that tenants have no real prospect of ever being in a position to be able to buy their own home.

That is a fact of life in the national housing market and you cannot buck that in a single place like Ipswich.

Yes, the town needs more homes for sale but we have to accept many of those will be sold for buy-to let landlords.

And the town needs many more high-quality social housing. And right now the best, and largest, provider of that in the town happens to be the borough. Ipswich council might not do everything perfectly – but its housing service does look to be in pretty good shape.

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