Living in Britain in the 21st century, surrounded by the wonders of technology, and living in a society with massive potential to shape and organise our world, we should all at least expect to have decent a decent place to live at an affordable price. Having your own place, either as a decent bedroom and house within your parent’s home, or your own place, should you want or need to live on your own or with other people, or the ability to set up a home with a partner, should not be down to luck or to a ‘dream’ of owning your own home: it should be your right. We all should expect that amidst the massive wealth of British society all people who live here can at least have a decent home – is this really too much to ask?
But this is not the case. One in seven children are actually growing up in a homeless situation or in ‘bad’ housing; this is well over a million children. There are also 1.63 million households on housing waiting lists, and 500,000 who are living in over-crowded conditions. Within this bleak picture countless young people are stuck at home – not through choice, but because they cannot afford to rent. In addition, there are more than 100,000 homeless householders who are living in temporary accommodation. All these figures not only reflect the past, but represent an increase of nearly 150% from 1997 when New Labour was first elected. It is nearly twenty times what these figures were when Thatcher first came into power in 1979.(Grannum, C., Policy Briefing Home Ownership. 2006: Shelter.)
The housing situation is a scandal of capitalist society, a situation which has been constantly deteriorating over past years and looking to get even worse in the future.
Need for Housing
On top of the present crisis, the actual demand for housing will be increasing over the coming years, set to make the situation even more acute. The population of the UK is expected to rise from 60 million in 2005, to 62 million in 2011, to nearly 65 million by 2021.
This population change, along with other social and age factors, will dramatically increase the number of households (individuals, couples and families) seeking homes. There are at present 22.8 million households in the UK; government statistics are predicting that another million or so will be added in the next five years; and by 2016 there will be 25.1 million households in Britain. This is an increase of 2.3 million in just ten years. Let alone reducing the current housing shortage and improving the quality of existing housing, each year the number of new houses built is less than the annual increase in households.
The average rent for a single room, in a shared flat in London is around £100 per week per person, depending on condition and location. Up north in Leeds the average exceeds £60 per week for a small bedsit or when sharing a flat with others.(Understanding the Housing Market: Market Conditions, Unipol) If you actually want to live on your own or rent a place with a partner, then look to treble these figures.
The rule of thumb for landlords, and the only control on the level of the rent, is ‘what the market is prepared to pay’. This means jacking up the rent because of increasing housing shortages and the consequent rising demand for rental properties.
The impact of the general housing crisis is particularly felt by young people who are priced out of the ability to find accommodation. The result is a string of negative consequences. Often young adults are forced to return to their parents’ home when they do not want to, putting pressures on parents, limiting everyone’s choices, with a general deterioration in quality of life for all. Others become homeless, or end up sharing with others, with a large rent eating into their weekly wage.
When we talk about public housing we should be clear that it means housing owned by the people through their local council. The term needs to be differentiated from the new euphemisms of ‘social housing’, or ‘low cost housing’, which are terms borrowed from the United States and used by New Labour in an attempt to confuse the boundaries and relationship of ownership, as part of their policies of privatisation.
Public Housing Attacked
Public housing has always been one of the central policies of the labour movement; it is the recognition that capitalism fails to provide working people with decent housing; it is recognition that decent and secure accommodation is part of the quality of life that all people should expect.
A sure way of providing good quality homes for all is a massive extension of the council housing sector, along with the democratic control of the management of this housing through local tenant associations and elected tenant representatives.
The scandal of New Labour is not only their failure to build in the public housing sector but that, through a series of overt manoeuvres, they have directed the privatisation of council housing.
How have they done this? On the one hand they prevent local councils from building new housing, and on the other force them to pass control of their housing stock to a variety of providers of ‘social housing’. This is done using the same gangster method used to bolster City Academy Schools: funds are withheld from local authorities unless they comply with the government dictates. In housing the funds to improve existing stock are being withheld unless the housing stock is handed over to ‘Registered Social Landlords’ (RSLs). Once this has been pushed through (usually in the face of opposition by tenants), money is handed over to the RSLs. All this amounts to a public subsidy to pass ownership out of the public sector and to undermine tenant rights. It is clear that New Labour has no regard for the quality of life of the tenants – they can stay in poor quality housing unless councils do as they are told.
Labour backbench MPs around the ‘Support for the Fourth Option for Council Housing’ campaign has estimated that government policy has siphoned off some £1.5 billion which was due to support council housing into the private sector to support these privatisation policies.
Many of these RSL housing associations are increasingly run by cliques of self-interested managers; they often have slick business links with profit-making housing development companies. Gone are the local human interest-cum-charity based housing associations which once existed in some areas. With mega bucks floating around, these RSLs have been transformed into new corporate institutions.
These providers of ‘social housing’ often act as arbitrary landlords and seek to deprive tenants of rights. They have greedy eyes on the millions to be made from the sale of lucrative land they acquired during the privatisation deals. On paper, and as part of the spin to push tenants into agreements with RSLs, tenants are supposed to have representatives on management boards – although there is never a suggestion that tenants should actually be the majority! Where these representatives actually speak out for tenant rights, they are generally dismissed from the board, as was the case of Canalside Housing in Hackney, London. In other cases, where representatives were initially elected, the RSLs arbitrarily changed the rules so that they now ‘appoint’ the tenant ‘representatives’, requiring that such board member toe the line and provide only a symbolic illusion of consulting tenants.
In part 2 Ed will deal with the problems of ‘home owners’ and outline a socialist programme for housing