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Housing choice is a good idea - but don't mistreat tenants

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We have travelled down a very long road when Labour councils, particularly inner London Labour councils, pursue policies aimed at promoting private housing development. Moreover, development in areas earmarked as council-house-free zones. As our news story on page 4 makes clear, the reasons for this historic change of direction are complex. But, in a nutshell, these authorities have concluded that the provision of a single type of housing in one borough is unlikely to promote the wealth and health of the borough as a whole. (It does not seem very likely that Conservative authorities will follow suit.)

The decision of these authorities will be castigated by some as evidence of New Labour lack of principle driving out traditional Old Labour values. Homes for yuppies instead of horny-handed industrial workers forever locked into the economic and social world-view of the vanished Abercrombie age. There is certainly a feeling that Islington types find the idea of council housing, like comprehensive education, faintly distasteful. Given the choice, of course, that is what many working-class people think as well; the idea of escape from the municipal estate to a mock- Georgian pile in the country still seems deeply embedded, almost as much as the dream retirement running a quiet little pub in somewhere remarkably like Ambridge.

Are the labour councils engaged in an experiment in which they inevitably reject their own history? Not at all. After all, social housing still exists in abundance, and if tenure and management patterns are changing, that is probably a good thing. By extending the choice of housing for people who wish to live in their boroughs, these authorities are recognising the fact that one size certainly does not fit all. The fact is that with minimum inflation and low interest rates, we are entering a housing market in which all bets are off: where overpaying for property as a tax-free hedge against inflation no longer makes sense. Provided there is still social provision, extension of housing choice makes good sense. One word of warning, however: compulsory relocation of tenants is just not on.

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