I live on a street with a Council house on it. Shock. Horror. Actually, you'd never know; it's no different to the rest of our Edwardian terrace, mellow red and yellow stock bricks, slate roof, classical Coadstone mullions to the window bays and entablature to the front door. In a street of fifty dwellings, forty-nine are privately owned and one is publicly owned. And it works. It was bought by the Council, I think, at some time in the 80s during the ideological battles being fought between the rainbow coalition in the town hall and Thatcher's government.
We have socialised the current tenants. When they first moved in, we had a night of loud music that ended abruptly when a dozen different calls to the Council's noise nuisance hotline brought the stereo squad screaming round. Unlike neighbours on a Council estate, we middle class homeowners are not backward in commanding regulatory resources to action. Then there was the time when their 12 year-old acquired a motorised scooter. After two passes down the street the lad was stopped six times by homeowners at their front gates warning gently that such behaviour was forbidden. And with the sticks came carrots; the smiles and nods of recognition to assure the tenants that it was nothing personal, just the way we want things. And now their windows are polished, their garden neat and tidy and they join the rest of the street in the mini orgy of Saturday morning car cleaning on the wide double-parked Edwardian tarmac.
So when housing minister Caroline Flint suggested that Councils could buy homes from struggling homeowners and rent them back to keep a roof over their heads I didn't recoil in horror. Even if the original homeowners move on and are replaced by 'normal' Council tenants, as long as the mix is suitably weighted it could work well.
What do I mean by suitably weighted? The mix between Council and private. I think 5% is about right, and 10% at the absolute limit of what can work. The current social housing targets of 35% or God help us 50% in new mixed developments are way, way too high and are already producing instant slums with bedsheets tacked up to the window frames in place of curtains and other signals that make the private flats unresaleable. If the middle classes are to socialise the underclass in this way we need to swamp them with our morals and values, and apply a social pressure too great to be resisted. So 5% then.
And this would be only the first phase. If we're using our taxes to buy these homes, we want a decent return from our assets and want to ensure they're maintained in good condition. The Council is too expensive, too remote and too anonymous to achieve this. On the other hand, the existing homeowners of the 300 - 400 dwellings that make up our little neighbourhood (and any local estate agent can tell you precisely the boundaries of all of these mini-wards) are ideally placed to do so. The local estate agent in the parade of shops could manage the lettings and collect the rents (thus helping hard-pressed estate agents to stay in business), and the rest of us could buy shares preferentially in the property assets, at a suitably attractive discount from current market value, shares that also be sold or traded in an open market. A sort of mini-Sid, for those of you that recall the British Gas privatisation. A little neighbourhood portfolio of 15 to 20 houses, originally funded with a mix of tax money and equity released from our own homes, but becoming self-sustaining and able to repay the 0% interest investment from the taxpayer, releasing further investment funds in a virtuous cycle of public investment.
Of course Flint wouldn't go nearly so far as this; her aim stops at the State owning these housing assets. It would take Cameron's team to give Flint's ghost of an idea its full effectiveness.