by Kevin Meagher
Twenty years ago, I took my father to hear John Prescott speak at Bolton Town Hall as part of his Red Rose tour. This was one of those “ra-ra” events on the road to the triumph of 1997. Optimism was high. Promises were easy. The Tories were a shower and New Labour had the answers.
In his inimitable podium-thumping style, Prescott told the packed hall that the capital receipts from council house sales of the 1980s – that local authorities were banned from spending – would be released in order to build new houses.
This was one of the party’s big policy promises at the time. It would address housing shortages, (that were already apparent), as well as putting hundreds of thousands of building workers, like my dad, back to work after the deep recession of the early 1990s, which had hit construction particularly hard.
It was the kind of rooted, common-sense measure that spoke directly to millions of voters like him at the sharp end of a Thatcherite economy that had left the North in the deep freeze. Now, it was our turn. Fast forward a decade though and things didn’t quite work out as planned.
By then, Prescott’s capital receipts pledge had turned into the Decent Homes Programme. A £19 billion pound effort to renovate dilapidated social houses with new bathrooms, kitchens and roofs.
In reality, it saw expensive contractors soaking up oodles of public cash. According to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, costs of the programme doubled to £38 billion by 2010, without creating extra new homes or the scale of jobs that sort of public investment should have done – (or, indeed, that Prescott had promised would happen that night in Bolton).
What the last Labour government did deliver was the lowest rates of new house-building since the Second World War. Unfathomably, Labour ministers were more concerned about helping Middle England’s property values to appreciate than they were in tackling housing shortages for first-time buyers or putting construction workers back to work.