Thanks to Peter Cahill and Chris England I returned to an old passion today.
They run the three year old Newport Housing Trust (NCH). They asked me to speak at their Annual General Meeting. Housing was the theme of my maiden Commons speech in 1987 and the reason I was expelled from Newport Council Labour group in 1977. Other issues have crowded out housing recently.
The NCH mission is, ' Delivering excellent services and improving homes and neighbourhoods while adding value to residents and the city'. Have we all learnt the errors of the past? The legacy of housing in Newport is a mixture of calamities and triumphs. Some policies were at their self-gratifying worst and others at their visionary best. Architecture sometimes at its most sensitive inspired subtlety and at most bovine lazy incompetence.
Of course. views on housing are relative. David Cameron defended his friendship with a Murdoch insider on the grounds that he is a 'neighbour', 'He lives two or threes miles away from my home'. Most of our neighbours live two or three yards away.
In the forties and fifties politicians measured their virility by the total of houses they built. It was quantity not quality were the only criteria.. There was a master plan in the late forties to build half million pre-fabs. Instant homes, cheap and quick to build, a concrete base than the segments were delivered with plumbing and electrics installed. The most advanced feature of the prefabs was a coal fire with a back boiler that heated the water and circulated warm air to the bedrooms. The bathroom and kitchen units were built back-to-back for economy of space. All that was needed was to bolt them together. Only 150,000 were built with a planned life of 10 years. In Newport many lasted 60 years. They were replaced in defiance of the wishes of their tenants and owners.
Now I find myself in the extraordinary position that having seen and approved plans for housing from glossy brochures in the seventies, some of those houses are candidates for demolition. Alma Street in Pillgwenlly were razed to the ground. Identical homes in the so-called Twilight Zone of Baneswell were spared.The Baneswell homes survived and are much sought -after, valued urban cottages.
Doctors can buried their mistakes. Architects can demolish theirs. Newport fell for many of the foolish architectural errors of the half a century ago. Open plan estates had no defensible space. The star shaped blocks and the deck access flats were conceived as a result of an idealised view of human nature. The district heating in Duffryn were meter-less in the belief that tenants would not use radiators as clothes dryers on hot July days. They did of course. The star shaped blocks depended of the faith that large communal space would be cleaned in turn by responsible tenants. They were not. The star shaped blocks and the deck access flats have been demolished.
There is also a legacy of fine courageous micro-surgery of decision making by generations of councillors, architects and planners in Newport. It was benign and non-doctrinaire.
The Newport authority has been Labour for all but eight of the past 62 years has been selling council houses since the sixties. Its reasons for doing so are not the Thatcher reasons. It is not done as an act of social engineering, a self-motivated act designed to win people to its side. It has always been part of the history of the Socialist movement—going back on the continent to the Swedish Socialists, and in this country to the Rochdale pioneers and the early guild Socialists —that home ownership is the cornerstone of Socialism. We have always considered it right for a person to own his home; what we object to is the belief that it is right to own someone else's home.
The reason that we in Newport have sold council houses for all this time is that we have seen the dilemma of housing in its long-term aspect. Too often, it is forgotten, or seen as a temporary, short-term problem. But when we decided on our answers to housing problems, we are looking for solutions that will not merely last for the life of a Parliament or a council, but will stand firm and good for 60 or even 100 years. The decision to sell council houses in Newport was made, and the sales were continued, to create stable, mixed communities, and because, in these inflationary times, it is not property but rent that is theft.
A great Member of Parliament for the county of Gwent — Aneurin Bevan—when he was Minister of Housing. He said that his finest ideal—what he hoped above all else to create in the new estates that were being built in the late 1940s—was the reproduction of what he described as the most lovely feature of English and Welsh village life in which the farmworker, the lawyer, the blacksmith and the doctor lived side by side in the same street. He wanted to create the rich tapestry of a mixed community. That is a high ideal that we have rarely achieved.
Do we see the picture of that tapestry, a balanced picture of harmony and order, or do we see something else? What we see in London is not a tapestry, but an ugly jigsaw broken by lines of division and injustice. We are seeing the creation of ghettos. On one side are those whose estates are shunned: they are places of fear, crime and neglect. The other, almost equally worrying, piece of the jigsaw shows the privileged estates behind barricades with security fences and guards in front of them.
Newport City Homes deserved congratulations for adapting the distract heating system at Duffryn to match the practical expectations of human behaviour. It have saved on bills, on COs emissions and and improved customer satisfaction. Perhaps the best legacy are the extra-care homes of Wellwood, Willowbrook, Glyn Annwen, Capel Court, Aneurin Bevan. Newport were first to build extra-care scheme in Wales in 1988. They are still delivering.
Tentative Commandments of Housing.
Any form of home ownership improves well being more than any form of landlordism.
The further house design diverts from traditional two storey semi-detached with back and front garden the worst habitat it provides.
Property is not theft. rent is.
Estates of owner-occopied houses improve. Those of rented homes deteriorate.
Avoid idealistic expectations of human nature.