Ben Stevenson national organiser of the Communist Party examines the flawed and sometimes fatal approach of handing the housing supply entirely over to market forces.
In a modern, advanced rich country like Britain you’d have thought that providing for one of the most basic human needs, housing, would be a priority for any government. However government policy is at best a distraction from solving the problem and at worst contributing to it.
While the Tories’ announcement this week of £140 million to clear some of the 100 “worst” sink estates will no doubt please Daily Mail headline writers, it’ll do nothing to address the housing crisis in Britain which has become the defining economic issue for an entire generation.
The focus of the Tory government’s housing strategy has been to fuel speculation, encourage the illusory notion of ownership through extending the right to buy and to further reduce social housing through the ending of secured tenancies. This has caused house prices to soar by more than 500 per cent since the right to buy was introduced in the 1980s — and rents have hit 42 per cent of average wages (60 per cent in London).
Across Britain around two million families are stuck on council and housing association waiting lists even with the Tories viciously striking off 113,000 people last year by changing the way in which people qualify. The demand is so great that local authorities are having to turn to putting families needing emergency accommodation in B&Bs — often for months at a time — at an exhorbitant cost to local authority budgets. With new social housing peaking at 20,000 new units of the estimated 200,000-250,000 needed, the problem is only getting worse.
The market cannot and will not solve the crisis. It’s the cause. Property developers continue to hold onto between 635,000 and 870,000 unoccupied homes in England alone. Nearly 90 per cent of these are outside the south-east. Since the height of the economic crisis property developers across the country have held onto their investments, halting development and waiting for the housing market to explode upwards to guarantee them lucrative profits. As long as it’s infinitely more profitable to build yet another half-full high-rise luxury apartment building in central London, they won’t build sustainable communities of people.
The difficulty in pinning down the precise number of empty homes indicates the root cause of the problem.
Charities and advocacy groups like Shelter and the Empty Homes campaign are the only reliable sources of information. The notion that central government should at least be undertaking the job of understanding the scale of the problem — let alone solving it — is completely alien to the government, with its dogmatic adherence to “letting the market solve the problem.”
Empowering local authorities to seize and let out the at least 200,000 long-term vacant dwellings (any that have been unoccupied for more than six months) would be a good start but there are much deeper economic driving forces at play and any solution has to be pursued nationally.
The greatest concentration of long-term unoccupied homes are in de-industrialised urban towns and small cities in the midlands, north-east and north-west of England, as the lack of jobs has driven people to up sticks and move to the nearest major city. Any programme of housebuilding can’t be solely concentrated in the south-east of England and must go hand-in-hand with a programme of genuine investment and urban regeneration.
This is precisely the kind of approach that is being considered within the leadership of the Labour Party, but if we’re to make this kind of programme a reality we need to see a massive upsurge in mass and localised struggles around housing.
This has to involve addressing campaigns to the entire generation of young people fir whom the prospect of finding any sort of decent home is becoming unattainable. The number of people under 35 still living with their parents has risen by over a million since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 and the advent of “sofa surfing” has hidden the true extent of the problem. Crippling student debt, the stagnation of wages and the absence of secure employment means there are millions who don’t even qualify for social housing and where even private rental accommodation (let alone home ownership) is an economic luxury.
Bringing the majority of the housing market back under democratic control isn’t just the most desirable solution to the housing crisis, it’s the only one.
But it cuts much deeper than merely a question of affordability. We have to tackle head-on the continued perception — particularly in urban working-class areas — that council housing is synonymous with ugly, dilapidated, unsafe tower blocks. A recent survey showed that when applying the decent homes standards met by social homes to private accommodation, just 37 per cent of homes are up to the same standard. Cuts to local authorities have reduced what little regulation there is of the private rental market, with many councils in England even failing to have a dedicated private-sector inspection team. Those that do are woefully overstretched.
But much more than this, we need to recapture the positive vision originally encapsulated in the post-war homebuilding explosion that the state can be used to create vibrant, mixed and thriving towns and communities — where doctors, teachers and bin collectors all live on the same street and have a decent place to work, rest and play.
The occupations and other forms of direct collective action typified by the Sweets Way and Focus E15 campaigns and the dozens of others that go unnoticed need to be replicated across the country and linked to mass campaigning and agitation by the labour movement as a whole.
The highly successful London-wide march for better homes at the beginning of this year, where more than 6,000 people marched from south and east London, was one of the first major attempts to bring housing campaigners and unions together.
Trade union branches and local TUCs have a critical role in translating well-meaning policies into a mass campaign that develops sustained local activity. They can change things by providing support for residents facing eviction, naming and shaming substandard landlords, applying pressure on councils, working with local housing campaigners to force the issue when needed and educating young and new renters on their rights and landlords’ responsibility to provide decent safe accommodation.