In the year In 1923, the Scottish Unionist politician and conservative thinker Noel Skelton wrote that in order to stabilize democracy, the government needed to promote “property-owning democracy”. This rise of socialism can be met with “constructive conservatism”, which allows to expand and protect the interests of property.
A century later, Skelton’s views on home ownership remain very relevant. Among the promises being made in the current race to become leader of the Conservative Party – and UK Prime Minister – is a promise to make it easier for “generational rent” to reach housing standards. Both candidates claim to be the true heirs to Margaret Thatcher, whose “Right to Buy” policy was one of her long-standing policies in Downing Street from 1979-90. In a very Skeltonian mode, Right to Buy aims to create such a democracy of property ownership by giving local-authority housing tenants a huge discount to buy their own homes.
Today, domestic inflation fueled by central bank inflation has turned that dream on its head, along with the unexpected effects of savings and the right to buy. Right to Buy was a phenomenal success, selling over 2 million homes and generating immediate wealth transfer. But one of the direct and long-term consequences is that, rather than increasing home ownership, it has contributed to the rapid growth of an unregulated and unsustainable private rental sector.
In the year In 1979, more than a third of people in England lived in councils built, owned and managed by local authorities. Now, more than 40 per cent of council homes bought through Right to Buy are sold to private landlords, renting for three or four times the price of comparable properties in the social housing sector. The result is that in many parts of the country, private rent is unaffordable for low- and middle-income earners, leaving people out of the market and leading to a continuous cycle of displacement. Similarly, a comparison of 35 European countries puts the UK in the bottom 20% for home ownership, putting to rest the myth that the British are home owners.
Several new books capture this fact. Greeted by well-worn rhetoric about property and housing – jargon-laden policy briefs about accelerating prices or the dead – they look instead at the human experience of being forced to move, which has become one. An ever-present reality that makes everyday life easier for the 11 million people who make up Britain’s private tenant population.
in TenantsVicky Spratt’s shocking and provocative indictment of private renting in Britain, reveals how practical and productive lives unravel when people lose their homes, their sense of self and their sense of belonging in the world.
The case studies are shocking and disturbing. Limara, with her two degrees and a career in management, was looking to get into HR to give her seven-year-old daughter a solid foundation. Her life spiraled out of control when her husband told her he was selling the south London flat she had lived in for a decade.
Unable to shop elsewhere, she had to turn to the council for help. But to qualify for assistance, she must prove she is not “intentionally homeless.” This meant that she had to wait almost a year for the landlord to obtain a possession order from the court. The eviction took a toll on her mental health, so she quit her job with severe anxiety and depression and was later hospitalized for an overdose.
When she was finally given housing, her daughter’s school and her mother, the sole source of childcare, were outside London. When she broke down in tears and asked how she was going to get her son into school, the placement officer told her to “get up early.” She and her son now live with her mother, the two of them sleep in the living room and join the homeless.
Tenants It is full of powerful narratives but offers a range of policy options. One of them is Housing First, which was developed in New York and changed the housing policy in several European countries like Finland, Netherlands and Austria. The policy, which is now being trialled in the UK, is aimed at the homeless and based on housing provision outside of work or addiction.
But Spratt believes the policy of providing people with safe housing should be extended to the private rented sector. This is the year The Housing Act of 1988 introduced certified short-term tenancies and Britain has the world’s shortest tenancies – at six months – to help tackle the dire consequences of the crisis, rivaled only by Australia. Like Spratt’s book, Barrister Hashi Muhammad is beautifully written His own house It emphasizes the emotional toll of being constantly on the move, expressing the family’s sense of helplessness as they lose control of what is most important in their lives.
Living in housing instability overlaps with homelessness, with many people like Limara classified as homeless despite having a roof — albeit an inadequate one — over their heads. Daniel Lavelle’s raw and compelling memoir; Down and outPrivate Rent brings a preoccupation with street homelessness as he details his harrowing and abusive experiences in the care system and his inevitable descent into sleeplessness, addiction and homelessness. Lavelle describes himself as one of the lucky ones who managed to get out, when many people close to him did not. But now, as a successful journalist, he has been evicted from two houses by two different landlords and his home is still unsafe.
The Sunday Times’ foreign affairs correspondent Christina Lam, who found herself unable to travel due to the outbreak, brought her passion home. Prince Rupert Hotel for the homeless It’s the story of how a historic hotel in Shrewsbury, Shropshire found a place to live for the local homeless population for a year as part of the government’s emergency “Everybody” initiative.
Lamb’s compassionate and persuasive narrative is touching but does not ignore the challenges faced. The family atmosphere created unexpectedly by the hotel staff sits alongside high-profile guest pickups, ambulances and fights, but the bigger message is that political will can and does happen when it comes to accommodating people. According to Spratt, the Conservatives’ pledge to end street homelessness by 2027 was rushed through by “everyone” within 10 days.
Spratt, a house reporter for the i newspaper, started her career as a journalist at the BBC as a junior producer. She suggests that one day they might want to do more stories on the mansion, but is snubbed by her editor, who says, “It’s not that interesting.”
It’s a reaction I know. Starting out as a journalist, I looked at housing as an important area of social policy that seemed to get little coverage. I soon realized why: where once every newspaper had a housing reporter, now they are filled with real estate supplements. Housing has been reduced to poor housing.
These books show a shift from a property-boom approach to housing. All are rooted in many human stories where having a home is a central feature of people’s lives and the foundation of trust in society and its institutions. The shift in discourse around the housing crisis is important because, combined with the success of more diverse approaches like housing for everyone, heralds a real opportunity for change.
The narratives also highlight the change that seems to have permeated the highest levels of government. Michael Gove, until recently the UK Secretary of State for Standards, Housing and Communities, has condemned the poor quality of much of the private rented sector, saying volume housebuilders are operating a cartel with unhappy consequences. In a departure from his familiar Conservative rhetoric on housing, he has repeatedly made clear the need for more social housing – a move that has been noted by the opposition Labor Party.
Yet, like many of his predecessors, Gove has been short-lived, and leadership weakness at the top has been identified as a key obstacle, with 12 home ministers since 2010. The tax, recommended by separate government requests from both parties and supported by many economists, was not adopted. As the housing crisis increases, the nature of the debate is changing fundamentally, but whether the current political situation can act in readiness for change is another question.
Anna Minton of ‘Big Capital: Who Is London For?’ (Penguin) and Reader in Architecture at the University of East London
TenantsPeople on the frontline of Britain’s housing crisis By Vicky Spratt, Profile Books £20, 352 pages
His own house By Hashi Muhammad Profile Books £5.99, 160 pages
Prince Rupert Hotel for the homelessA true story of love and compassion in the midst of a pandemic By Christina Lamb, William Collins £20, 320 pages
Down and outSurviving the crisis of homelessness by Daniel Lavelle A wild fire £18.99, 304 pages
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