“It shall be the duty of every local authority… to consider the needs of their area with respect to the provision of houses for the working classes”
– Housing and Town Planning Act, 1919
“The stately homes of England!
How beautiful they stand!”
– “The Homes of England”, by Felicia Dorothea Hemans
“I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time, such a fine time
Such a happy time”
– “Our House”, by Madness
The short story of British housing is one of a flawed system which was set up with the best intentions, and then exploited, manipulated, and undermined… for decades. The long story – the real long story – is so complex, interwoven, painfully and terrifyingly human, that it may well never be told. This, then, is an attempt, an approximation. It chronicles housing policy from its post WWI beginnings through to Grenfell, seeking a chronology of the main inflection points and an understanding of the housing crisis’ human impact.
The current crisis is huge in scale and decades in the making. It has devastated hundreds upon thousands of people, and shows no sign of abating. I began writing this piece with the intent of discussing potential policy solutions, but it soon became clear that a few policy solutions won’t be enough. To solve the current crisis, the country must reckon with what really caused it – the attitudes and ideologies that offered concrete monoliths as homes and then forgot the people who lived there. Britain doesn’t just need more houses built. It needs an overhaul of the very planning system, regulation on foreign investment, and an attack on exploitative developers. Hopefully, the following will articulate why.
A Very Good System
Steve Oliver owns a two bedroom flat in Ebbsfleet Valley. He is 23 years old. He bought his apartment, the largest in the block, through the government’s Help-to-Buy scheme. The programme provides a temporarily interest free loan for 20 percent of a home’s cost. After five years repayments will attract interest, as well as new fees proportionate to the property’s appreciation. This fact, says Steve, is neither well known nor clearly communicated by the government. It was only by thorough personal investigation that he discovered the terms under which he’d be repaying his home.
Luckily for Steve, he has a job selling Lexus cars, which earns him, in his own words, “a fair bit”. He committed to repaying the loan within five years, avoiding the headaches and debt which so easily catch up with those asking the government for help in achieving the British dream of homeownership.
I asked Steve what he thought of the process. He replied that it was “a very good system”, more than up to the task of helping the average Briton find a home. “Unless, he clarified, “you’re living in London. It’s not really a flaw in the system – it’s just about where you live.”
Steve’s story reveals more than he lets on. It shows a complex and bureaucratic system focused on pushing people into a housing market in which they can barely afford to participate. This system is supported by the success stories of people like Steve with the financial security to play this game. Their victories become the pillars on which demand side housing policy is sustained, helping to further the lie – and it is a lie – that the housing crisis is not about a fundamental flaw with the system, but rather a matter of circumstance and location.
I: The Full Life of Citizens
The history of housing policy in England is complex, to say the least. It begins with feudal landlords and almshouses, before it experienced a radical shakeup thanks to the industrial revolution, and was finally given modern form by David Lloyd George’s post-WWI push for “homes fit for heroes”.
Today it exists as a demand side policy, largely uninterested in (and incapable of) addressing Britain’s chronic undersupply. The burden of providing homes has shifted away from the government, which no focuses on helping citizens get into the private property market. This system is insufficiently regulated, stacked in favour of developers, and has been exploited to create a kind of “gentrification-on-steroids”. The end result is that land is in higher demand than ever before, and neither the government nor the private sector are building enough affordable homes. Hence, the housing crisis.
But Britain didn’t get here overnight. It was a tragedy decades in the making – and like all great tragedies, it opened with a triumph.
The widely accepted story about the time we call the postwar consensus is that both Labour and the Conservatives agreed to provide for the British people that which they could not provide for themselves. Thus followed a systematic effort to fight the “five great evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. This, at best, is partly true.
In reality, while both parties believed in the need to rebuild after the war, they were divided about what rebuilding really meant. Aneurin Bevan, minister for health in the Attlee Labour government, was one of the great architects of postwar Britain. He founded the National Health Service and introduced the 1949 Housing Act, which not only committed the government to a huge council housing boom, but also removed the restrictions that council housing was only for the working class. Bevan wanted “mixed communities” which could resemble “the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages… where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher, and the farm labourer all lived on the same street”. His goal was not only to get the government to build houses, but for council housing to become an integral part of British society – just like the NHS. This integration, Bevan felt, was “essential to the full life of citizens”.
The reason this didn’t happen is key to understanding the modern crisis.
Bevan’s Housing Act built on work done two years earlier, in the Town and Country Planning Act. This law created a framework for how land could be developed. It tried to balance protection of the greenbelt with the need for housing, and to solve the problem of “betterment” – the tendency for land rezoned for development to soar in value; regardless of actual development. Betterment is a tremendous source of revenue for private landlords, but Bevan (and father of the British welfare state William Beveridge) believed that it could and should be more. In 1942 Beveridge (who famously identified society’s “five great evils”) wrote on the need for the profits of betterment to improve communities, rather than enrich landlords.
The easiest way to ensure this, of course, was a land tax – to siphon off the soaring profits and reinvest in the community. And, in 1947, the Town and Country Planning Act seemed to deliver precisely such a tax under the guise of a “development charge”. It ensured that the state retained all development rights while private landowners could only sell land at existing use value. This initiative lasted all of six years.
The Conservative government of 1951 continued to build houses, but not in the same spirit as its predecessor. In 1953 it scrapped the development charge, while its house building policy removed Bevan’s references to homes for “everybody”; instead focusing on house building as a panacea exclusively targeted towards society’s worst off.
These might seem like slight differences, but the impact was profound. The reason the British planning system is no longer working as its architects intended is because only half of it remains in place. The greenbelt still limits the quantity of land that can be developed, but no land tax survived for the benefit of communities, resulting in price spirals. Land values are driven up by scarcity, and the rewards are reaped by landowners and developers with no incentive to do anything but hoard their profits. In 2014 Ed Miliband railed against this land-banking, while a Guardian investigation found that there was enough land being hoarded by developers to provide 600,000 new homes. This followed a 2003 report which recommended the government take action against land-banking… action which was never taken.
Furthermore, reframing council housing as a policy only for the worst off effectively doomed the entire enterprise. It became inseparable from poverty relief and the stigma which accompanied it. Council housing was no longer a bold new attempt at building a real, workable welfare state. Instead it became a stepping stone, a safety net… something which could, one day, be “phased out”.
This was the first real blow to fair housing policy, dealt just years after the postwar consensus gave it birth. But there were more fundamental flaws than just these.
II: A Firm and Visible Wall
This difference in attitudes led to a difference in action. Aneurin Bevan refused to compromise on the design or quality of the houses he was building, despite repeated demands by civil servants to do just that in the name of productivity. He dismissed such concessions as “the coward’s way out… if we wait a little longer, that will be far better than doing ugly things now and regretting them for the rest of our lives.”
His successor, Harold Macmillan, did not share this view. Bevan built 900 square foot three bedroom semis. Macmillan built smaller houses and low rise “barracks” – designs which Labour’s 1945 election manifesto had specifically pledged to avoid. This – together with the newly invented and easy-to-build prefabricated houses – is how Harold Macmillan managed to “beat” Aneurin Bevan and build 300,000 houses a year.
Soon, though, council estates would change forever. A combination of construction companies’ steadfast lobbying, city planners’ love of expediency, and modernist architects’ heedless ambition worked together to create the modern day language of council housing: towering; concrete; brutalist. The tower block was born.
The one British precedent for the tower blocks of the 1960s came from Glascow, where Swiss architect Le Corbusier had masterminded a series of high density flats in the 1940s. His monolithic, blank structures were intended to discourage individualism and foster “mutual improvement”. These designs attracted disciples among fellow modernists (who gravitated to the chance to build radical, towering structures); construction companies (who saw the enormous slabs of concrete as a profiteering dream) and city planners (who loved the ease and convenience of housing dozens of people at the same time).
The government encouraged such developments, with the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act offering great subsidies for higher building. Architectural dreams of a “new Jerusalem” or “radiant city” had come true, thanks to a government-led need for more housing no matter the design. It hardly occurred to these visionaries that their favoured descriptors for these projects – conveying “power” and “prestige” – hardly sounded homely or inviting.
This became the first problem with modernist estates: Their DNA. Because they looked so different, so stark, so unwelcoming, they would almost never feel like “home” for the people who lived there. In her book Estates, Lynsey Hanley (who grew up in the Chelmsley Wood Estate in Birmingham) alleges that the ‘otherness’ of council estates meant that class was “built into the physical landscape of the country”. The uninviting monoliths that were tower blocks now combined with the council housing’s fundamentally inorganic nature (planned as a whole in a certain area, rather than developed slowly over time) to alienate all who inhabited them. “Housing”, Hanley says, “seems to have been the one great failure of the welfare state. It is the one area where public investment intended to narrow the gap between rich and poor eventually served to create a firm and visible wall between them.”
This problem of architecture is still felt today. Visiting the Aylesbury Estate in South East London I was struck by an unrelenting harshness. The grey seemed infinite – huge slabs of concrete glowering down at you from every angle, while the pathways buckled beneath your feet. You feel hemmed in, bullied into submission by militaristic pillars which block out the sun, while rubbish and plastic bags were squeezed into wire mesh fencing on the buildings’ sides, bulging through the gaps like diseased pustules. Inside, the corridors are vast and damp, with staircases so wide and strangely lit they feel like remnants from some bizarre Soviet stage play.
There are vast, open, pillared spaces beneath the buildings. The wind sweeps through them with an angry hum, funnelling the London cold into these low, damp, buckled hiding spaces. Through this giant crawl space men and women move quietly and slowly to dump their rubbish in an overflowing skip, tucked grimly behind the estate’s tallest and angriest tower.
Of course, fly tipping happens throughout Westminster; the cold and the wind haunt you in Soho, and Canary Wharf feels as concrete and artificial as anywhere else. Few of council estates’ worst aspects are unique to them. Not that it matters. Their reputations are so sealed; the sad connotations of their very name so prominent, that the moment you visit one, it’s hard not to be flooded by unease. That’s hardly fair to the people for whom this great concrete jungle is home. But its lack of fairness doesn’t make it any less true.
The second problem with modernist estates was much more severe, and can be summed up in two infamous words: Ronan Point.
The 1968 collapse of Ronan Point tower’s South East corner in East London only resulted in four deaths, but it killed a dream. The resulting inquiry found that, during construction, standards had been continually ignored. The tower was barely held together – spaces in the building were filled with newspaper instead of concrete, while most walls weren’t resting on solid surfaces, just bolts and pegs – many of which weren’t even the right bolts for such a building.
The corner was rebuilt and life went on, but it was clear that the modernist estates of the past two decades were deeply, irreversibly flawed. Gone were the days that they could be looked fondly as sound investments for the future of Britain. Instead they became shoddily assembled and uniformly ugly betrayals of the working class. These estates – with their dark corners, hidden alleyways, and sprawling concrete grounds – required a level of supervision and upkeep that councils (who had expected one off investments – not ongoing maintenance) could not afford to provide. They accrued a reputation for crime and filth and misery – the same words which had haunted the slums they were supposed to replace.
Following Ronan Point’s collapse, Newham residents collected over 700 signatures for a petition which read “Under present conditions, we will flatly refuse to leave our present slums to enter modern slums”. The town clerk replied “Whether the blocks become slums or not will depend entirely on the people who live there.”
Tower blocks became slums in the sky. Their reputation continued to plummet throughout the following decade. In 1972 an American architect, Oscar Newman, introduced his theory of “defensible space” – that buildings which do not encourage individual containment allow intermingling and loitering, and thus become hotbeds for crime. Two years later he brought this theory to the UK, in a television special where he toured and lambasted the Aylesbury. “One wonders”, he intoned, “will these children grow up to become the criminals we seem to have so many of in America?”
Newman’s ideas eventually paved the way for the police-backed Secure-by-Design policy which installed security guards, cameras, fences and spikes on already foreboding housing estates. Their reputation was now sealed.
But if the 1970s saw the demise of council housing as an idea, its death as a reality didn’t begin until the next decade. And for that we turn, as we must, to Thatcher.
III: There’s No Such Thing As Society
Almost no-one thought Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy was meant to end council housing. It had, over the last three decades, become a pillar (albeit a chipped and shaky one) of British society. It was merely meant to transfer control to semi-private Housing Associations – to put “power in the hands of ordinary people”, as the Baroness herself put it. The policy was allowed council tenants to own the houses they had lived in for decades by buying them at a discount; nothing more, nothing less. Except that councils were forbidden from using the money they received on selling their houses to build new ones.
Thatcher’s vision was of a “property owning democracy”. In a 1974 Conservative Party broadcast she argued “People want a home they can call their own. The last Conservative government encouraged councils to sell but all too often Labour councils refused. This brought disappointment to many many people, but this time we’re going to make it a matter of the law of the land.”
Things, however, were not that simple. Right-to-Buy slowly became a source of gargantuan profits for private landlords. In 2016 the House of Commons found that nearly 40 percent of homes which had been sold through Right-to-Buy were being rented by private landlords as the original owners had sold up.
At the same time the Thatcher government had abolished rent controls and deregulated the private sector, allowing rents to creep unrelentingly upward – including the former council properties now being rented out privately. Here, then, are the seeds of the modern crisis.
Thatcher’s successor John Major continued this trend. He too believed in a government which helped citizens to get into the private market and then left well enough alone. And nowhere is this clearer than in how his government pushed housing in Britain from bricks to benefits. The then housing minister, Sir George Young, famously replied to questions about unaffordable rents that “housing benefit will take the strain”. The problem with this vision of a government which helps push people into the welcoming arms of private housing is that neither Major nor Young had any idea just how bad the strain would grow to be.
The seeds that Thatcher sewed, together with the fundamental flaws in the planning system combined to force rents upwards beyond what the housing benefit could sustain. A system originally supposed to empower individuals was beginning to hound them, fostering the growth of the housing crisis.
IV: Do I Really Have To Provide Affordable Housing?
The dawn of the new millennium laid yet more groundwork for the crisis. Tony Blair’s ‘Decent Homes’ policy aimed to transfer 200,000 homes annually to housing associations (the “decent” part came from a pledge to refurbish the homes as a condition of transfer). The policy was allegedly based on the will of the people, with transfer conditional on tenants voting for it. It soon became mired in accusations of ballot rigging, with a 2005 Guardian article outlining how “ministers were accused of forcing through the controversial policy with a mixture of bribery, coercion and rigged tenants’ ballots.” The New Labour government promised to repair the damage of the past. They did not.
The 2010 Coalition maintained the status quo, cementing the now familiar notion of a British government uninterested in council housing. To quote David Cameron in 2016, “I’ve put the bulldozing of sink estates around the country at the heart of turn around Britain.”
This transformation of housing and planning is frequently referred to as its “financialisation” – a reflection on how the system has changed from one which served people to one which serves profit. Nowhere is this clearer than in the blatant disregard developers show for the very principle of affordable housing. Section 106 of the 1990 Housing Act requires developers to collaborate with local authorities in building a percentage of affordable housing with all new developments. This requirement is under a sustained two pronged attack: The first comes from changes to the meaning of “affordable”. Boris Johnson’s 2013 London Plan set it at 80 percent of the market rate, while the 2016 Housing and Planning Act redefined “affordable starter homes” to include anything worth up to £450,000. The terms “Orwellian” and “newspeak” can here be invoked without any risk of carelessness
The second assault on Section 106 came in the form of the “financial viability assessment”. Like so many causes of the housing crisis, obtuse wording shrouds simple selfishness. Viability assessments take the total costs of a project and subtract the projected revenue to assess whether or not it is “financially viable”. The actual practice of assessing viability is anything but fair. Projected revenue is based on the land’s current value before development, and the “viable” rate of return is set at 20 percent – the same as an average hedge fund performance fee. Democratically elected councilors are frequently not allowed to see financial viability assessments ahead of time, hidden as they are by the cloak of “corporate confidentiality”.
Consultancy firms like Savills and S106 Management Ltd expertly exploit this system for the benefit of developers, saving money by eliminating affordable housing. This is an actual graphic proudly displayed on the latter’s website:
Councils, meanwhile, have no incentive not to sell off their housing blocks. In fact, they’re encouraged to do just that, thanks to the soaring land values and the fact that refurbishing existing homes carries a 20% VAT charge – a charge absent from rebuilding efforts. Hence, the constant demolition and rebuilding of council blocks across London. It’s important to note that whether these homes are privately owned or not doesn’t matter – Right-to-Buy has no effect on local development laws.
In real terms, this means that the worst off are shipped further and further away from the city centre. Councils focus their attention on redevelopment in an effort to attract wealthier residents. They force residents to sell their homes – often using bullying and harassment to get their way. For instance, when Lambeth council decided in 2013 to redevelop, they began by offering to consult with residents, before ignoring them and forbidding their use of council spaces to organise. Once they’ve crushed local opposition and bought out the homes they need, councils then frequently offer residents the bare minimum help to find a new home. People are offered new houses dozens of miles away from their jobs and their children’s’ schools, and if they don’t accept, they’re declared to have made themselves “intentionally homeless”, and thus no longer the council’s responsibility.
Nowhere has this battle between councils and citizenry been more clear than in Newham. The former site of Ronan Point tower, the council is today embroiled in a different kind of housing controversy.
In 2013 Jasmine Stone was going to be evicted in two months’ time. She was a nineteen year old single mum living in the Focus E15 Hostel in East London – one of the few buildings of its kind with a dedicated mother and baby unit. The hostel was financed by Newham council, who had cut funding and were now telling 29 mothers who lived there to get out. Finding a place to live, the council said, was entirely their responsibility. The most Newham council did was provide a list of places to phone, but it was little use. Jasmine phoned and phoned – racking up an enormous bill in the process – but couldn’t find anywhere to go.
Then, at the urging of her mother, Jasmine changed tack. She reached out to other mums in the area and they put together a simple petition – “sign here if you support us and don’t think we should be evicted”. Their story gained media momentum, and Jasmine achieved an audience with the Labour mayor of Newham, Robin Wales. Even five years later, disbelief still creeps into Jasmine’s voice as she explains what happened next. “This was before we’d even organised”, she says. “We went to him to ask for help, and he said to us ‘I know what you’re doing, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting… if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham.”
As it turns out, this moment would become a touchstone for Jasmine and the 28 mothers whom the council were about to evict. Seeing that their mayor had no interest in helping them, the mums regrouped and began a targeted campaign against their eviction, one which eventually paid off. Naming themselves after the hostel they were being forced from, they occupied an empty Olympic flat, highlighting the hypocrisy of the nearby Olympic Village and its unfulfilled promises to benefit the community. Then, they did the same on the near-empty Carpenters estate – an enormous building the council was intending to demolish. The mums’ efforts highlighted how the council had bullied and tricked residents out of their homes in an effort to fast track development – hot water and power would vanish, while deliberately obtuse bureaucracy would frighten people off. I asked Jasmine what exactly these tactics were, and her answer was illuminating
The Focus E15 campaign’s fight against Newham Council became more dramatic than anyone could have predicted. The Carpenters estate occupation was a media spectacle, and drew celebrated comedian Russell Brand to the cause. Newham Council responded by rescheduling their evictions so that the most vocal among the mothers were set to be rehoused first. Nevertheless, Jasmine and her fellow mums had the momentum well and truly on their side, and eventually wore down the council so that all 29 mums were rehoused by the council within Newham.
But the Focus E15 campaign was far from over. They became a community organisation dedicated to, in their own words, “social housing not social cleansing”. Every Saturday, from 12-2, they man their stall on Stratford Broadway, hand out leaflets, and collect signatures. I met with them twice, and both times I found the strongest, warmest, most human face the current housing crisis could have.
The first time, they were at their stall on a Saturday like any other. These women had been doing this for four years, and it showed. Both in their readiness to explain exactly what was wrong with Newham council’s housing policy, and the sheer tenderness with which they greeted each other in the cold and wet. They had a community meeting later that afternoon, and as we walked there, Jasmine, her mother Janice, and fellow Focus E15 mum Elina Garrick took turns telling their stories and introducing me to Newham.
Janice pointed me to a shopping centre which used to house a large homeless population at night. The council has since employed security guards to chase the homeless more or less out of Newham’s commercial areas and into the estate grounds.
Walking through the council housing grounds was an experience in dereliction. The tower block’s windows were broken, while plastic bags blew across the streets like deflated tumbleweeds. Mockingly, the Olympic stadium stands less than a mile away, and (from the right vantage point) towers above the 410 empty council homes.
I asked Jasmine what she thought about the government’s shift away from providing housing, and towards getting people into the private market. Couldn’t the housing benefit be a reasonable alternative to the run down estates I saw all around me? She responded with what I’m ashamed to say has to be called a mirthless chuckle. “The way I see it going”, Jasmine said, “is that they’re gonna end up scrapping the housing benefit altogether. It’s been getting smaller and smaller all the time, and there’s the local housing allowance already, which cuts it further for each borough. It’s too small – you just don’t get enough money. And at the same time, the council’s charging such high rates – I know people who are literally living in cupboards. It’s not that the council’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – they just don’t want us here.”
At the meeting Jasmine and her mum served cake as attendees lowly trundled in. I took the time to ask Elina about her experience with the council. It was not a happy tale.
Elina was moved from Newham to a set of cramped studio flats in Hertfordshire, and when she protested she was sent to Birmingham, along with 12 others waiting to be rehoused by Newham council. With things looking desperate, Elina’s solicitor told her to accept things as they were. By chance she found Focus E15, who helped her to steadfastly and deliberately plead her case to the council.
The next six months were tumultuous. Elina’s marriage had broken down, and she was staying in a one room apartment with her three children. Her three year old kept her toys on the stove thanks to a lack of space. The place almost burned down twice as a result. Her flat’s washing machine remained broken for six months as the council kept promising to repair it. The nearest laundrette was 40 minutes away.
Finally, thanks to her efforts with Focus E15, a council representative met Elina in the local library, offering to deal exclusively with her case. She refused. “It wasn’t just about me”, Elina explained. “I demanded to be the last person moved from my estate, so that I could see what was being done to the people I lived with. It was not good. The council moved them to emergency accomodations – one friend of mine was sleeping in a kitchen. These places – they are called ‘temporary accomodation’, but I know people who have been there for years. We have to fight just to have a roof over our heads.”
At the meeting people commiserated over their treatment at the council’s hands. Elina explained how, during her spat with Newham Council, she was monitored by the police for weeks at a time. Others testified that the council had broken their water main in an effort to get them out. Jasmine explained that what Robin Wales wanted now more than anything was to sell off the Carpenter’s estate. This, in her view, was partly to compensate for the £52 million loss the council had made on Olympic investments. She accused the council of playing “a waiting game” with the elderly residents who had refused the “far too small offers” made by the council. “Because they can’t make people move out, they make it as uncomfortable and uninviting as possible, and then essentially wait for these elderly residents to die.” And she played this video of how Robin Wales had to be physically restrained while shouting at her when she protested at the mayor’s summer show.
The mayor’s office did not respond to my request for comment.
I next saw Jasmine and Janice and Elina four weeks later, in a very different spirit. Robin Wales, who had been in power for 23 years, who presided over the eviction of working class residents while leaving homes empty, whose borough now boasts a 1 in 25 rate of homelessness, and who had recently tried to prevent any other Labour candidate from standing against him, had been deselected. The mood was jubilant. After almost five years, it was an enormous victory for the Focus E15 campaign. Elina called it “validation for the power of democracy”, while the campaign’s website read “Focus E15 will be pleased to see the back of Robin Wales – because he was an advocate of kicking out the poor and most vulnerable, running a council with £563m debt after reckless borrowing from the banks and lately using the equivalent of a staggering 125% of council tax revenue on debt repayment. “
Despite this moment of reprieve however, the fight against the British housing crisis is far from over. The focus E15 campaign know this too, having drafted a charter for the “people’s Newham” they hope to create post-Robin Wales.
But, of course, the housing crisis remains larger and more devastating than any one campaign, any one mayor, and any one charter. And thus, we turn to the final cause for the current crisis: kleptocracy.
V: The Spider’s Web
In recent years London has arrived at an inflection point. The city has become the money laundering capital of the world. Its central location and affinity with tax loopholes have made it conducive to tax evasion and offshore arrangements. Journalist Nicholas Shackson (who has been recognised for his investigations into Donald Trump’s offshore finances) called London the centre of a spider’s web of corruption and dirty money. When my family moved here, our accounts were automatically set up in Jersey, under the assumption that we’d want to minimise tax. When my father protested, the bank was shocked.
The consequence is that a glut of foreign investment has pushed London into a super-prime crisis. Transparency International alleges 44,022 London properties are owned by overseas companies – 9/10 of which come from secrecy jurisdictions. Neighbourhoods like Mayfair; St James; Belgravia; Kensington; Chelsea; and Notting Hill – those clustered around Hyde and Regent’s Parks – are occupied by ultra high net worth individuals. A 2016 study addressing “London’s housing market and the ‘super rich’” found that many of these properties are unoccupied most of the time – 25% in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, and 40% on the West End. They are owned by billionaires who reside in London for tax purposes, while spending their weeks elsewhere – Russia; China; wherever their business is – before returning for the weekends.
This is not only unnatural, but it has also driven inner city house prices to staggering levels, creating a ripple effect of high speed gentrification. Brixton, Elephant & Castle, Newham – none of these suburbs are what they once were, and with councils across the city more than ready to knock down and rebuild for new, wealthier residents spreading out from within London, the housing crisis looks set to continue.
I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore
There is no one fix for the housing crisis. Certainly the political response has been insufficient – both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have acknowledged the scale of the task ahead, and have promised to build more houses, but this is not enough. Neither has indicated much understanding of the underlying issues of the crisis beyond the simple truism that there isn’t enough affordable housing, and the solution of building more of it won’t work.
The government needs to reform the planning system, crack down on property speculation; and do their part to end the desperate obsession with home-ownership. Without deflating the property bubble, building more houses is unlikely to have any significant effect on prices – if anything it will drive them up, because speculation has not been addressed.
I asked Duncan Bowie – former advisor to the mayor of London and author of Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis – what should be done, and he summed it up in three points:
- “Increase government funding for social rented homes, estate regeneration (rather than demolition and rebuilding) and fire safety retrofitting.
- Reform taxation in relation to under-occupation and inheritance.
- Encourage public sector acquisition of land for housing at existing use value – as recently proposed by both Jeremy Corbyn and Nick Boles; as well as tougher enforcement of planning policy to focus on more appropriate submarket homes; planning conditions on development to ensure effective occupation.”
Of these reforms, he considered none likely, and spoke only of the third as “beginning to look possible”.
The sad reality is that the real solution to the housing crisis cannot come from any laws the House of Commons decides to pass. It can only emerge from a total paradigm shift. Housing must be re-established as a right, alongside healthcare and education. This is logical and fair, as it is thanks to our fundamental rights that people can engage productively in society. And it’s very hard to do that without a stable roof over your head.
For this to happen would require a new wave of democratic engagement – one which councils have spent the last two decades trying to suppress. But if there’s one thing writing this piece has shown me, it’s that grassroots democracy should never be underestimated. For eight months people have marched through the upmarket suburbs of Kensington to the charred ruins of Grenfell. And for four years the mums of Focus E15 have campaigned and fought for the wellbeing of themselves and anyone else in Newham who needs a hand.
The postwar dream of Aneurin Bevan was radical at the time, but it was also tremendously popular. There is real political appetite for change now, as there was then. Change is not impossible. But it is not promised either. The challenge of the housing crisis is vast, and will not be defeated without real, deliberate action. Given that, it might be wise to reflect that modern history is full of vast challenges, and though not all of them were overcome, we can take comfort in the soldiers of the past. Their words and deeds live after them, and remind us that we are not alone, and our fight is not in vain.
Words and videos by Delmar Terblanche
All photos used are either taken by me or, to the best of my knowledge, licenced for reuse