When social historians write the history of the 20th century, they will contrast the huge advances made in the living standards of the British people between 1900 and 1999. Even allowing for two bloody world wars and the years of economic depression, by the end of the century the quality of life had improved dramatically for the mass of the population, beyond the wildest dreams of those doughty pioneers of social change who sowed the seeds in Victorian Britain for better health, higher standards of education, longer life expectancy, improved working conditions, wider opportunities and vastly superior housing conditions for most people.
While the improvements in the overall quality of life spanned the 100 years, for millions of people it was in the middle 50 years or so of the 20th century—the second and third quarters—when the greatest advances were made in housing. Council housing did it—not the private sector, not quango housing associations or arm's-length management operations, but the democratically accountable local authority council housing departments that were funded by central Government. In those days, one-nation Conservative Governments who championed municipal enterprise and civic pride would compete with real Labour Governments for who was the best when it came to building council houses for the general population.
As a consequence, by the time that the final quarter of the 20th century arrived, the concept of homelessness was in effect a thing of the past. Cardboard city was unheard of. Not only had the curse of homelessness been tackled and beaten, but the relatively few families at any one time living in sub-standard accommodation or in housing that was inadequate for their needs were certain that it would be only a few months in most cases before the promise of a family home would become a reality—oh, happy days.
Where has it all gone wrong? We are told that this country has the world's fourth richest economy, but why does Britain now have a housing crisis the like of which I have not witnessed before in my more than 30 years of elected public office? It is most certainly not the fault of the councils. I pay tribute to the excellent work of local authority housing staff in difficult, challenging and, in some respects, hopeless circumstances in trying to help the homeless and families living in substandard accommodation to be better housed. The front-line staff deserve praise for trying to achieve the near impossible. I pay particular tribute to the housing staff at Colchester borough council who assist the homeless and who recently achieved beacon status for the council—staff who help the victims of the Government's failed housing policies.
Until the Thatcher years, families in need of decent housing would have been housed, but not now. What Thatcher started, the Major and Blair Governments have continued. Indeed, it could be argued that new Labour is more hostile to the concept of council housing than even the measures put forward during 18 years of right-wing Tory Governments.