By Bill Perry
Some people take it for granted. For some, it’s an impossible dream. But having – or lacking – secure, affordable housing shapes everything else that happens in our lives. At a recent meeting in Hastings about forming a housing co-op, I heard stories of desperation that have become commonplace in all parts of the UK, as fully 20% of households are now stuck in the insecure private rented sector. I heard elderly women express their fear of isolation and lack of care in old age if they can’t move to an appropriate supported housing community, alongside young parents moving from one expensive flat to another and never feeling that they can settle down and be fully ‘grown-up’, let alone provide their children the security they crave. They are scared, they are resentful, and they are angry.
Until recently this article would have concentrated just on this failure of the free market to provide needed homes; talked about how large property investors are moving into the private rental market; how property magnates are the Tories’ biggest donors and their influence on housing policy; about the damage these housing policies have wrought on communities. We would have spoken about the need to build more social housing and about the need for rent controls and security of tenure in the private sector.
But now when we talk about secure homes we can no longer just talk about housing. We now live under the shadow of climate catastrophe. Images from around the world, of homes burning or flooding are commonplace. People are now plotting their postcodes on apps that show what areas will be under water in 30 years as sea levels rise. That underlying, debilitating fear about the future of where we live is starting to permeate all our lives as the threat of climate change literally hits home.
The widespread view across the scientific community is that without an urgent change of direction the world is on course for 4˚C+ warming during the current century. This is backed up by the government’s own Committee on Climate Change, which advised all departments to plan for “a minimum 2°C rise in global temperature with consideration of 4°C.” We have already hit a 1.25 C rise. There is a serious debate as to whether humanity can survive at 4°C or will it be reduced to a global population of under a billion? A 2°C rise means 20 % of the habitable surface of the earth becomes uninhabitable, one billion climate refugees and agriculture failing.
Sir David King former scientific advisor to the Blair-Brown governments has said: “There is much discussion about how much carbon budget there is left to burn and there is none.”
He added: “We have to act quickly. What we do I believe in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity”
Our built environment accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, so we can’t talk about reducing emissions and tackling the climate crisis without addressing housing. Instead, we have cognitive dissonance at every level of government. From Parliament to Councils, politicians up and down the country have declared a climate emergency. Yet when it comes to housing, the mantra is build more, regenerate through new building, demolish and build anew.
Construction pours tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a time when they must be reduced. They say these projects are net zero but this is nonsense. Net zero doesn’t even count the greenhouse gas emissions in the buildings’ construction. Net zero relates to the projected future emissions to heat and light these building.
They say it will be net zero over 50 years. We don’t have 50 years. Developers can also just pay Councils to offset these future emissions. Carbon offsetting or ‘cash for carbon’ is a scam that does nothing to reduce Co2.
They are going to plant some trees. Plant them anyway and stop cutting down the trees already there. Our green spaces, our woods, our biodiversity, our carbon sinks are being dug up to make more profits.
Major carbon-intensive construction developments are planned everywhere. We are told new housing is needed due to the housing crisis, but the houses that are built won’t deal with the problem of affordability. Since 1996, the English housing stock has grown by 168,000 units per year on average, while growth in the number of households has averaged 147,000 per year. As a result, the national surplus of households has almost doubled: in 1996, there were 660,000 more dwellings than households, but that had increased to 1.1 million in 2018. While the people who need them cannot afford to buy them, others accumulate multiple properties as holiday homes or to secure their income in retirement.
The problem is not a shortage of housing, but how we use the resources we have. Hundreds of thousands of properties sit empty while people sleep on the streets or sit in temporary housing. They stand as an indictment of this economic system where housing can be treated simply as a financial asset, which can be left empty to appreciate in value, or let sporadically as an air b&b.
Now more than ever, we need an alternative vision for how to fulfil our basic need for housing while addressing the overarching threat posed by climate change.
The People’s Housing Charter initiated by the Radical Housing Network came out of a discussion between housing and environmental campaigners about the way in which climate change calls into question everything about how we live, including our homes. The common denominator in addressing both issues is democracy – can we work together as a society and redirect our economy to address these tasks? The large-scale shift required is not feasible if we are relying on private companies which are outside democratic accountability and only motivated by profit.
But with public funding we could convert empty homes to social housing. We could retrofit all our aging housing stock to be properly insulated and connected to renewable energy schemes. With the political will we could legislate for fair rents and secure tenancies and restrict the use of holiday and second homes.
These kinds of demands in the Charter aim to demystify the process of taking action. We do not need to wait for new technologies or devise clever tax incentives to nudge people over time. We simply need local and national governments which are prepared to use their powers in our interests, such as requiring house builders to use the sustainable materials and processes that already exist but are currently deemed economically unviable.
We need politicians who listen to the science, tell the truth, and involve people in taking on these tasks together. We need a movement that provides real solutions and inspires people with the possibility that we can achieve them. The People’s Housing Charter aims to play a small part in that process.
There will be a range of speakers addressing the demands of the People’s Housing Charter – and the tactics for winning them – at a Zoom public meeting on October 4th. We look forward to welcoming supporters of Labour to take part.
For more information:
Zoom link https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUsc-muqjkoGdRAJCcTVDukswOdQzpZd4VR
Bill Perry is an activist with the Radical Housing Network
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