Old wine in new bottles

There have been many examples recently that prove nothing is permanent in politics. People move on. Governments come a go and even ideas that have been totally discredited can be resurrected as old wine in new bottles. The new prime minister has decided that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, grammar schools are the answer to the growing inequality and poverty that her previous government’s policies have caused.

I am a child of the 1950s and I grew up in the height of the grammar school era. I witnessed at first hand how they divide people at the age of 11 into those who are seen as successes and those who are seen as failures. I passed the 11-plus but I never went to a grammar school. I have described elsewhere in my blog the reasons for this, the main one being that my family moved from Derby to Leicester in the summer of 1963 and I was sent to the local modern secondary school.

I enjoyed my school years and did reasonably well. But almost all of my school friends were ‘conditioned’ into believing that the most they could aspire to was a job in an office if you were female and a job on the factory floor if you were male. I often heard even good teachers use the term “factory fodder”. I left school at the age of 16 with eight O-levels to work in the local factory. Now the prime minister wants to return to that time. It’s another example of a political obsession, like homeownership, that will only increase inequality, not reduce

If the prime minister is serious about reducing inequality and poverty, she should resurrect a 1950s policy that was successful. The post-War building boom was one of the most successful government interventions in recent history. The case for building more council homes and homes for social rent is stronger now than it has ever been. I have argued for some years that government investment in social rent homes and freeing up councils to build again is the only way to solve the housing crisis and build the number of homes we need. They did it in the 1950s, so there is no reason why we can’t do it today. Report after report continues to show the disastrous effect on people and families of the lack of social housing and prove beyond doubt that investment would save money and improve the quality of life for many.

I am pleased to see that more in the social housing sector are beginning to make this case. I hope that those who have been saying it for some time will no longer be seen as ‘voices in the wilderness’ or ‘dinosaurs’ as I have often been called. I am no dinosaur but I accept that I am a housing veteran. This week I’m attending my 37th National Housing Federation conference. I hope I will not be as disappointed as I was last year when the sector was rushed headlong into accepting the then-government’s ideologically-driven housing policy. The short-sightedness of this is shown by the fact that the government with whom we did the ‘deal’ has gone. Some are even beginning to realise that we were sold a ‘pig in a poke’ as I said at the time. I wonder if boards would so readily sign up today to the Voluntary Right to Buy, now that we know the detail.

I hope that I will not be disappointed at the end of this year’s conference. Is it too much to believe that housing associations are now brave enough to challenge this government, and make the case for a 1950s policy that will begin to resolve the housing crisis and more importantly reduce inequality and poverty? Or will we miss our chance once more and condemn more people to a life of penury where opportunities are reduced due to the lack of a decent home that they can truly afford?


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