As I See It: Terry Murden
There was a campaign a few years ago with the ambition to Make Poverty History. A dinner was held at the Glasgow Hilton where some of Scotland’s well-heeled entrepreneurs bid against each other for baubles they didn’t need to raise money for a project with good intentions.
One self-made tycoon, who at the time was trying to make a name for himself as a TV adviser on how to get rich, confidently told me: “I think we can do this. I think we can rid the world of poverty.”
I gave him a journalist’s hearing (objectivity) before telling him to carry on dreaming and wished him well. The campaign was wound up a year after an estimated 225,000 well-meaning individuals marched through Edinburg, four days before a timescale for eradicating poverty was set out at the G8 summit at Gleneagles.
The entrepreneur whose self-belief proved to be an ambition too far is no longer in Scotland and poverty, sadly, is still with us. The campaign wasn’t helped when it emerged that the wrist-bands worn by supporters had not only become fashionable amongst people who cared little about the original message, but also when it turned out that many were made by forced labourers in Chinese sweatshops.
I was reminded of this when a press release landed on my desk from the Scottish Labour Party in which its leader Richard Leonard promised to end the scourge of homelessness “once and for all”. Mr Leonard has set a target of building 120,000 homes for rent across Scotland.
If Mr Leonard achieves his goal – and we’ve yet to see costed details that are bound to include higher taxes and borrowing – then he will deserve a knighthood, though he’d no doubt see that as too close to becoming part of the elite he denounces.
Aside from his personal prospects of becoming a national hero, he deserves some credit for highlighting the need for the state to ensure everyone has a decent home. It is an eyebrow-raising fact that the last major push in council home provision was made under the Wilson Labour government in 1964, which actually led to a surplus.
In the 1980s the Thatcher government offered tenants the right to buy their council homes and altered the balance of provision. Councils were prevented from reinvesting the proceeds of these sales in new housing, and the total available stock, particularly of more desirable homes, declined.
Many Labour supporters denounced the right to buy policy but it was popular with many Labour voters and, although the Labour government of Tony Blair tightened the rules (reducing the maximum discount in areas of most housing need), it did not end the right to buy.
Social housing has emerged as an alternative form of affordable homes provision but waiting lists stretch for years. There are 130,000 Scottish households on local authority waiting lists and a growing population is making the problem more pressing.
Mr Leonard has identified a key need but will require a huge change in mind-set and re-allocation of public funds. To achieve his target he will need to emulate Wilson’s objectives. He is also echoing the view of Labour’s post-war welfare champion Aneurin Bevan, who passionately believed that council houses should be provided for all.
Is Mr Leonard on the right path, or is he deluded? The comedy television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus once did a spoof version of Blue Peter’s feature on making models in which they planned to “rid the world of all known diseases”. Like Making Poverty History and ending homelessness, it was deemed to be another impossible dream. Politics is about trying to make things happen, so it’s worth having a go, however high the odds are against success. There may even be somebody knocking on doors over the next few weeks with the crazy notion that one day Britain will leave the EU.