The Return of Squalor: An anthology from the first ten years of Red Brick blog by Steve Hilditch has been released today on its tenth anniversary. Duncan Bowie reflects below.
It seems more than a decade since Steve Hilditch started the Red Brick blog – ten years since the fall of the last Labour government and the end of John Healey’s all too brief term as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. All the more to be regretted as John was the first Minister for many years from any political party who really understood what housing policy was all about. He didn’t spend time bemoaning council housing and council tenants, or go on about how everybody aspired to being a homeowner.
I suppose I have known Steve for nearly forty years – from the first days of the Labour Housing Group in the early 1980’s, when I was a young councillor in Oxford and Steve was in Westminster leading the opposition to Lady Porter’s social cleansing housing policies, which eventually led to her being surcharged. Steve was working for Shelter when I was in the housing policy team at Lambeth council, in the days of Ted Knight and Matthew Warburton, when Margaret Hodge was running Islington, David Blunkett, Sheffield and Pat Hollis, Norwich – the days of the Campaign against the Housing Cuts.
The Red Brick blog does not of course go back that far. As Steve explains in his introduction to the anthology, it was the fall of the Labour government that was the trigger. We should also remind ourselves that in 2010, progressive commentary on housing policy was fairly limited. Shelter’s influential journal ROOF had ceased publication in 2003 – a very poor decision by Shelter’s management. We had Housing Today and Inside Housing, but these journals were aimed primarily at professionals rather than campaigners. The journals of the left of centre, such as the New Statesman and Progress, rarely showed much interest in housing, and we no longer had radical journals such as the Leveller and Community Action.
So, the Red Brick blog became an important source of commentary and critique, a reassurance that we were not alone. As a web-based blog, it also had and still has the advantage of being readily accessible, as contrasted with all those dusty boxes of old magazines in our attics or basements, for those of us fortunate enough to have archival space. If only politicians, civil servants and think tankers, had ready access to knowledge of the policies which had or had not worked in the past! The past is too important to be the preserve of historians.
The archive could be called contemporary history. It is a reminder of the struggles of the last decade, and how appalling the last 10 years of housing policy have been but also, even more regrettably, of how little attention successive governments have paid to the arguments put forward in Red Brick and by other progressives, whether practitioners or academics. Having for the last decade chaired a progressive housing policy network, I am only too aware how housing has had far too little attention on the political left, including within the Labour Party.
Resolutions could be carried at successive Labour Party conferences and then the issue almost forgotten about until the next conference. We have had a series of well-informed Commissions and parliamentary select committees, all reaching roughly the same conclusions, only to be ignored by Ministers, who instead have taken up the half-baked ideological driven nonsense of so-called think tanks such as Policy Exchange.
Spending four years arguing about Brexit has been an unhelpful diversion, as has been the factionalism of the last few years, when arguing for more council housing, and keeping the housing we had, became seen as the preserve of the adherents of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour Housing Group has recently become more active. A few years ago, Steve instigated a London branch of LHG, which has sought to disseminate socialist policies for housing in the capital. Steve recently interviewed shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds for an LHG webinar. Housing, like education and the health service, should be a key issue for all progressives and socialists, irrespective of tendency.
Not only is decent housing central to our belief in there right of everybody to a decent quality of life, but it cannot be treated as a specialist subject, and we need to continue to argue that policies on taxation, planning and land are absolutely central to making both existing and new homes affordable by lower and middle- income households.
My best wishes to Steve in his retirement (or at least his retirement from blogging) and thanks to the comrades who have taken over responsibility for Red Brick. While Red Brick has always has had a link to the Labour Housing Group, a more formal relationship is welcome and contribute to the most welcome revival of the organisation and hopefully a reassertion of its critical role both within the Labour Party and beyond.