In the 1960s, the spotlight fell on the excesses of the private rented sector and the gangland methods of Peter Rachman. Harold Wilson won the 1964 election partly on a promise – fulfilled – to end those excesses. By the early 1970s, the focus had switched to rents and mortgage interest rates.
Ted Heath's 1970-4 government implemented the Housing Finance Act, with built-in rent rises for all tenants. Wilson's 1974 government, elected on a pledge to repeal that act, brought in a rent freeze and a subsidy scheme for mortgage payers. It enacted security of tenure for furnished rented properties and stepped up the building of public sector housing.
After Margaret Thatcher's 1979 victory, there was a transformation of housing policy. The Tory government ended council house building by abolishing subsidies and created an underprivileged class of private tenants by introducing shorthold tenancies that allowed eviction almost without safeguards. The most revolutionary step, however, was the sale of the best of the public housing stock through the "right to buy".
Today, housing remains an essential need, possibly more basic than any other. Moreover, housing problems still abound. Sink estates survive and fester in the inner-cities: ghettoes imprisoning the socially excluded. Housing benefit, essential to large numbers, is often wasteful and badly administered and is liable to exploitation by a small minority of landlords and tenants.
Although mortgages are at their lowest for 36 years, house prices in London and parts of south-east England are so high as to make home ownership an unfulfillable dream for many who are not eligible for new schemes to house "key workers". And on top of these concerns is the worry that housing development may damage or even destroy the green areas that are the lungs of these overcrowded islands.
Sink estates survive and fester in the inner-cities: ghettoes imprisoning the socially excluded
At the 2001 election, the main parties' manifestos will refer to housing, but it will not be a subject on which the election is won or lost. I therefore welcome one manifesto, just published, devoted solely to the subject. It is issued by the Chartered Institute of Housing and is called Homes and Communities: Priorities for the Next Government.
I do not agree with all of it, although I welcome its compliments to the present government: "In the past four years, housing and neighbourhood renewal have been higher on the agenda than at any time in the recent past … Housing has seen major increases in public spending for the first time since 1992 … "
I query its implication that new social housing should be provided solely by housing associations and that new build on greenfield sites is needed in areas of high demand. Its proposal for a single form of tenancy for social housing would only be acceptable if housing associations were subject to the same open democratic accountability as council housing departments. And some of its other aspirations are too imprecise or too difficult to implement, such as controlling the growth of second homes.
But most of what the the institute says makes excellent sense. In particular, it merits praise for spotlighting the impoverished owner-occupiers, who account for half of the nation's homeowners but get only 8% of available help towards housing costs.
It rightly focuses on the need for a wholesale reform of housing benefit, so that the enormous amounts spent provide help to those who really
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.