First person. What do councils do better than housing associations? Give political accountability to a vital public service, that's what.
When John Prescott, the deputy prime minister and environment secretary, introduced his urban white paper in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago, he made the customary reference to "social housing".

He was speaking about the government's substantial programme of improvements in this area, with vast sums of money allocated to "making sure that all social housing is of a decent standard within 10 years". Sadly, during the Conservatives' 18 years, vast numbers of council houses fell into disrepair and dilapidation owing to the severing of funds and the ringfencing of housing revenue accounts.

A quarter of a century ago, when I was a housing minister, social housing meant building council houses. Indeed, in those carefree pre-IMF days, I once in the House of Commons made the understandably derided boast that there was "no ceiling" on council house building. That year in England 103 403 new council houses were completed.

In 1998, the latest year for which complete figures are available, the number of council houses built in England was precisely 259. To make the comparison starker, it can be calculated that the number of council houses completed in 1998 was almost exactly a quarter of one per cent of the 1975 total. With the ending of government subsidies and loan sanctions, the Conservatives effectively ended council house building, which had for generations been financed and sponsored by governments of both major political parties.

This comparison does not mean that the total stock of council houses has been edging up since 1975. It is far starker than that. The total number of council houses in the public stock fell between 1975 and 1998 from 4 872 000 to 3 309 000. Partly this reduction was the result of 1 356 000 local authority tenants availing themselves of the right to buy and turning themselves from tenants into homeowners. Another, lesser, reason was the transfer of many rented dwellings from local authority to housing association ownership.

In 1974, when I was housing minister, I put through legislation that increased financial allocations, through the Housing Corporation, to housing associations. At that time they were regarded as providers of specialised rented social housing supplementary to the local authority stock. They acquired and adapted dwellings for the disabled and the elderly.

Just as the BBC is in theory accountable to the public but is not, so housing associations are not

Since then, however, housing associations have become the principal provider of new rented dwellings in the public sector. In 1975 they completed 13 652 new houses, about 13% of new council houses. In 1998 they completed 19 942 new houses, about 75 times as many councils. Between 1981, the earliest year for which comparable statistics are available, and 1998, housing associations' stock rose from 392 000 to 1 039 000. Their share of a drastically reduced total of publicly rented properties rose from about 8% to nearly one quarter.

Now, it may be asked: what difference does it make? Publicly financed dwellings for rent are publicly financed dwellings for rent, whatever public agency owns them. And, indeed, there are those who would argue that it is better for tenants to rent their homes from nice, cosy, relatively small social agencies than faceless public bureaucracies. It is certainly true that too many local authorities manage their remaining housing stocks incompetently, both in terms of management and allocation. But at least they are, in the end, accountable to the voters.

Housing associations are, in theory, accountable to the Housing Corporation, the quango through which they are financed. But it is impossible for the Housing Corporation to invigilate the activities and policies of every housing association in the country. Just as the BBC is in theory accountable to the public but is not, so housing associations are not. They each have their own policies, and it is often impossible to know what these amount to in practice, as distinct from theory.

Some, undoubtedly, are innovative and progressive. Manchester Methodist Housing Association, for example, is playing a leading part in the urban regeneration of the Longsight ward in my constituency. With others, there can be frustration rather than fulfilment. If council tenants do not get a prompt and efficient service in repairs, for example, the council's housing department can be hassled into doing the right thing. Housing associations may be much less responsive. Some may not even reply to letters.