By Glyn Robbins
Housing has been tempestuous for decades, but we’re about to enter uncharted waters. Unless the government performs another u-turn, on Monday 24th August the COVID moratorium on evictions will be lifted. Shelter, not an organisation given to hyperbole, has warned of a “tidal wave” of homelessness. The Homes for All campaign alliance has written to the Prime Minister demanding he follow the example of the Scottish government and extend the eviction ban, in an open letter signed by The Big Issue, Shelter, Generation Rent, UNISON, Ken Loach and many others. But time is running out.
There is an immediate threat to the thousands of households who have fallen into rent arrears because of the pandemic. But the prospect of a dramatic rise in homelessness is part of another ideological assault on the working class by this rancid Tory government. Commenting on the resumption of evictions proceedings, the housing minister Lord Greenhalgh said: “This is an important step towards ending the lockdown and will protect landlords’ important right to regain their property”.
Herein lies the mindset that has dominated housing policy for decades. The “rights” of landlordism trump (pun intended) the “right” to adequate housing, even though the latter is enshrined in UN Charters. A monstrous industry, valued at $217 trillion by one of its tentacles (Savills), now stalks the globe. The image of the individual landlord conjured by Greenhalgh is increasingly false. Housing provision is now dominated and controlled by the likes of Blackstone, who continue to make super-profits during the pandemic and have made no secret of the fact that they see the resulting economic crisis as ripe for “opportunistic property bets”.
As Rowland Atkinson’s recent book, Alpha City, eloquently describes, political regimes have deliberately courted corporate, speculative property investment and have created a policy framework to enable it. Sadly, many Labour politicians have been complicit in this. However, instead of recognising how the looming eviction danger reflects the error of our housing ways, there are signs that the property lobby (analysed by Bob Colenutt in another important recent book) is looking to exploit COVID-19 to its long-term advantage.
Dismantling the post-war planning system is a long-held ambition for landed interests and free market dogmatists (as ever, they’re less keen on reforming the huge public subsidies paid to support the private housing market). Now, in the name of “Build, Build, Build”, the government has begun to make it even easier for developers to get their own way. Already, it’s been announced that more building projects won’t need planning permission, particularly for changes from commercial to residential use and extensions, but this could be the thin end of the wedge. In early August, a “once in a generation” wholesale reform of planning regulations was unveiled by none other than Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, whose disregard for the existing rules has been well documented, but unpunished. The government’s intention to create a “simpler, faster, people-focused system” really means US-style “zoning” in which, far from increasing democratic scrutiny and accountability as Jenrick claims, it will be easier for deals to be done over mobile phones at corporate hospitality events, as Jenrick practises!
Even in these strange times, ripping up planning control will probably take years, but is undoubtedly another attempt to kick away a prop of the post-war settlement. Warnings have already been sounded of “the slums of the future” and a further reduction in the number of non-market rented homes that millions need. Planning sometimes struggles to escape nerdism, but a genuinely democratic process for deciding what, how and where we build is a vital part of socialist, eco-friendly land use policies.
In the meantime, the entire labour movement needs to get involved in fighting evictions and demanding the kind of “root and branch” housing reform that was unanimously agreed at the Labour Party’s 2019 conference. Critical to that is a new agenda for council housing, but we need to think about how we present the arguments, particularly to younger people. The benefits of council housing can sometimes be taken for granted by those of us for who have directly experienced it, or see it as part of a wider system of public ownership. But we must remember that there’s a whole generation of people who have only seen council housing in retreat, the target for denigration, disinvestment and stigmatisation. It’s sadly ironic that it’s often the cohort of young, super-exploited private renters who would benefit most from a council home, but who don’t necessarily see it as a solution to their housing problems.
We need to remake the case for council housing. Here are ten tried and tested reasons why it works:
- Truly affordable. The term “affordable housing” has been abused to the point of ridicule by developers, politicians and policy makers. But a new generation of council housing built on publically-owned land, with direct labour, adequate central government investment and near-zero interest rates enables rents to be charged at levels people can manage without being reliant on benefits, or destroying their quality of life to keep a roof over their heads.
- Not for profit. This is the real reason council housing is anathema to some. Their Trumpian creed only understands housing as a private commodity, not a social asset or human necessity. Insulating a significant proportion of homes from the volatility of the housing market creates social and economic stability.
- Today’s private renters, now over 20% of UK households, are never more than six months away from an eviction notice. This constant uncertainty makes it impossible to make plans for the future or become settled in a community where you have time to get to know your neighbours. The social atomisation fostered by the private market is precisely the aim of those who worship it. They fear council estates because they generate strong communities based on working class solidarity.
- Environmentally-friendly. We’re not going to save the planet through individualism, and collectively-owned housing offers far more scope for optimising energy efficiency measures, including the sharing of utilities and services.
- A comprehensive service. When it works well, council housing goes beyond the provision of a home. Tenants pay for – and should receive – a maintenance, repairs and caretaking service. The process of privatisation and mismanaged decline inflicted on many council estates has seen these important functions emasculated, but they can ensure that public investment and environments are safeguarded.
- Creating good jobs. Although the professionalised housing industry has become top-heavy, there are still many jobs associated with running a public housing service that need doing. Some, like caretaking, should be seen as part of the essential workforce we’ve been celebrating in recent months.
- Good value for public money. The cliché that you don’t spend public money on housing, you invest it, is quite true. The real value of council housing is rarely accounted for, not just in terms of the immediate benefits, but the costs of relying on a failed market model. We spend nearing £25 billion a year on Housing Benefit to people who can’t afford their rent, 40% of whom are in work, £1.1 billion on providing temporary accommodation to homeless people and an untold sum on the “invisible costs” of damaged lives.
- Preserving what matters. The out-of-control property juggernaut is running amok through urban neighbourhoods everywhere. The impact of over-development isn’t just aesthetic, or environmental: it also undermines a collective sense of identity. At the most brutal end, that means people and jobs are displaced as areas become transformed into identikit zones of consumption. Council housing is the best fire-break against gentrification.
- Good for health. In March 2019, Homes for All organised a prophetic one-day conference called “Bad Housing Makes Us Sick”. If ever there was any doubt about that, it’s been dispelled by coronavirus, as evidence accumulates of the disproportionate impact of the virus on communities suffering poor and/or overcrowded housing, many of them with large non-white populations. A conservative, pre-COVID estimate put the cost of poor housing to the NHS at £1.4 billion a year and Shelter found 2 million private tenants were made ill be housing worries. If we assume COVID-19 is here to stay, we should also assume these financial and human costs will increase, unless we have a more humane approach to housing.
- Democratic control – political engagement. Council tenants have been described as “special citizens” because of the degree of democratic control they have over their homes. Although this power has withered after decades of attacks, council housing still creates a direct link to the political process and can help reverse the democratic deficit.
As COVID’s long tail winds its way through society, we are in for the fight of our lives to make sure workers aren’t, once again, made to pay the price for a crisis not of our making. The battle-lines are already being drawn and one of them is the right to a home. Next Monday could start a new phase of attempts to turn back the housing clock, or the struggle to win homes fit for the 21st century.
Full details of “No COVID Evictions” protests can be found on the Homes for All website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Glyn Robbins is a housing campaigner who has written for The Guardian and Independent. He is the author of There’s No Place: The American Housing Crisis and What It Means for the UK (Red Roof 2017). He is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.