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Even after two world wars we rebuilt Britain. We must recapture that can-do spirit

Housing crises are nothing new and have been solved before. But now we seem paralysed by fatalism

David Olusoga

When does healthy scepticism towards politics and politicians begin to look more like a crisis of national confidence? The reaction to Labour’s manifesto commitment to build 100,000 new council houses a year by the end of the next parliament, and empower housing associations to build another 50,000 affordable homes, suggests the line is a blurry one.

There is no shortage of good reasons to be generally sceptical towards any manifesto pledge made by any party in any election and much of what took place last week was simply journalists doing their job – scrutinising Labour’s plans, checking sums and testing claims.

But some of the responses to the proposals for house building and to other aspects of the manifesto were not quibbles about deliverability or cost, but appeared to stem from an almost cultural belief that the most serious of the crises facing us are beyond our capacity to solve.

We are trapped in a strange era of double-think. We nonchalantly expect that next year’s smartphone will be faster and better than this year’s, yet we struggle to imagine that society and our lives could progress at anything like the pace at which technology advances and we meekly accept it when things go backwards.

We have become paralysed into believing that social disasters, like our current housing crisis and ever-growing inequality, are issues that cannot be addressed. After decades in which the state has been named as the key problem and state action is dismissed as an economic bogeyman, the idea that politicians and policy might actively improve our lives is something we struggle to envisage, never mind support.

Those unlucky enough to find themselves thrust in front of the cameras and asked about politics, in the vox pops so beloved by the TV news channels, often fall back upon the same mantras. They express their fathomless distrust of politicians; “they’re all the same”, “they’re only in it for themselves”, “they’re all as bad as each other”, etc. Whether that viewpoint is particularly helpful or not, one corollary of it is that many people are so convinced that the political classes are focused on maintaining a system that benefits them that they have given up on the idea that political action is the mechanism by which crises can be solved.

Giving up on politicians leads to defeatism about politics, surrender to a debilitating belief in inevitability and intractability, even when confronted by a crisis that is widely regarded as a national disgrace.

In the Britain of 2019, around a third of a million of our fellow citizens are homeless. Tonight, many thousands of them – one estimate says at least 5,000 – will have no choice but to wrap themselves in sleeping bags and bed down on sheets of cardboard in tents pitched on the streets of the sixth wealthiest nation on Earth. Around 1.1 million households are stuck on council house waiting lists. Thousands of families, many with young children, will spend tonight in tiny bedsits, rented from private landlords. Between 2018 and 2019, the cost of provided temporary accommodation to homeless households reached £1.1bn, according to housing charity Shelter, a 78% increase over the past five years. By any reasonable measure, this is a crisis – a social and a moral one and one that is rapidly getting worse. Inaction is not a viable option.

What is radical, therefore, is that for the past decade governments have failed to draft grand, overarching, national plans or pass dramatic new legislation aimed at addressing such a crisis. Their neglect, and our collective lack of outrage, is all the more surprising given that our own (relatively) recent history shows we have repeatedly faced down the same evil.

We have had housing crises before and through much of the last century state-directed action was taken to address them. The problem was never comprehensively solved, but homes were built and lives transformed. Between 1921 and 1922, 110,000 new houses were built in the UK. These were some of the homes “fit for heroes” that had been promised by prime minister David Lloyd George at the end of the First World War.

On the eve of another war, Britain was still working to meet the promises of 1918, but by 1939 more than 700,000 houses had been built. When that second conflict was over construction picked up where it had left off. By 1949, the number of new homes being built each year in Britain had reached 168,780. From then on, until 1978, more than 100,000 new council homes were built each year.

Before Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street in 1979, the building of social housing on that scale by councils was generally regarded as just one of the things councils did and were expected to do, like emptying the bins, providing school places and putting up Christmas lights in the high street. What was entirely normal just 40 years ago is now presented as “radical”.

The Britain of 1919 or 1945 embarked upon programmes of housebuilding that were far larger than anything Labour is proposing now and they did so with empty coffers in the aftermaths of two ruinous wars. The nation of 2019, exponentially wealthier, appears to have a fraction of its former self-belief and little faith in its capacity to solve the latest in a long line of housing crises that stretch back to the 18th century.

Our apparent paralysis would astonish our ancestors who would struggle to find anything particularly radical in Labour’s current housing proposals.

• David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster

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