Around twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a student at the time we met graduated from university; her degree enabled her to enter the profession she wanted to and within three or four years of doing so she bought a house. The timescale of this progression is inconceivable now, yet it happened to her when this very century was still in nappies (i.e. not that long ago). She was from an unremarkable working-class background – indeed, her family home was on the fringes of an estate you wouldn’t want to walk through on a dark night – and her parents were hardly ‘wealthy’ by today’s terms; they certainly didn’t play a part in her rise from student to homeowner; it was all down to her own endeavours. It struck me when I thought about it that her story is one we probably won’t be told again for a long time. It reads like a blast from a past that is now firmly out of reach.
Sobering statistics aired last week spell out how the climate has changed in such a short space of time. In London, over two-thirds of average earners’ income is now spent on rent. By the time the original scheduled date of the imminent General Election comes around (2020), it’s estimated that first-time buyers will need to be earning the best part of £60,000 a year in order to buy their own home; the current average annual UK wage is £27,271 – though David Cameron can set £25,000 aside to erect a shed in his back garden for the purpose of writing his memoirs; I’m pretty sure an estate agent could market that as a ‘micro bijou residence ideal for a small family’.
Another factor worthy of mentioning concerns the domicile status of many homeowners in this country. In the centre of the capital, 28% of buyers purchasing property don’t reside there, and almost 10% of this country’s entire housing stock is currently in the hands of foreign investors – those who view houses not as an essential roof over a homeless head, but as bargaining chips on the gaming tables of the international capitalist casino. Unlike many other countries around the world, there are no rules in place here to limit home ownership to tax-paying residents of this country. When so much of UKIP and Tory energies have been devoted to scapegoating foreign workers ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ in recent years, it’s odd that rich overseas homeowners taking our houses without even coming over here have evaded attention for so long.
Amongst all the issues being bandied about as crucial to the Election – Brexit, the NHS, education etc. – for me personally, housing is the most pressing of them all; whilst much has been made of the fact nurses are using food banks, few are pointing out it’s probably because the majority of their income is going on rent. Yes, the Tories made a big announcement on housing over the weekend, but the Government has recently changed public investment in housing from social rent (falling much lower than the market level) to so-called ‘affordable rent’ and ownership schemes. It also intends to put pressure on local councils to sell upwards of a third of their empty homes to draw Housing Association tenants into the Right to Buy project. Currently, for every five council homes sold under Right to Buy, one solitary replacement council house is being built.
At the same time, local councils spent over £840 million on temporary accommodation for the homeless last year alone, which amounts to a 46% increase in just five years. Add the removal of Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds and the cap on the same benefit for those in sheltered housing and it’s plain to see how highly this issue really ranks on the list of priorities penned by the powers-that-be.
Despite a few vague promises, housing hasn’t been at the forefront of the electioneering so far. I suspect the fear of losing votes from homeowners paranoid that their investments will diminish in value should house prices drop has played its part in this criminal neglect by the leading parties, though that simply isn’t good enough. Maybe if the UK was on the same level as, say, Bangladesh, our housing crisis would be regarded as an improvement on past statistics; but as far as the world’s fifth richest economy is concerned, there’s no excuse. Compare then and now – then being the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, when this country embarked upon the most radical programme of public building since the Roman occupation.
Whilst the creation of New Towns, the erection of sprawling council estates and the demolition of slum housing condemned before the war (many of which survived into the 50s and 60s) was a necessary response to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, this key policy of Attlee’s reforming administration nevertheless became a long-term project carried on by Tory Governments led by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home before finally drawing to a close under Harold Wilson. In the space of a quarter-of-a century, a housing crisis was dealt with as consensus politics weren’t affected by a change of colour at the top. The common good was recognised by all. Yes, some of it may have been shoddy and some of it may have left an aesthetic blot on the nation’s landscape, but the motivation behind it was laudable. The housing crisis of the twenty-first century may be down to massively different circumstances, but the need to resolve it is no less urgent, even if few in public office dare to admit it to the electorate.
I know I’ve written about this topic on numerous past occasions, but I find it baffling how housing isn’t at the forefront of the party manifestoes, even if the fact it isn’t doesn’t really surprise me. Yes, it’s being mentioned now that the individual party policies are being unveiled as media events day-by-day, but it’s not exactly dominated conversation in the campaign to date. Other than ensuring British citizens – or subjects, if you prefer – have enough food in their bellies, I can’t think of anything else more important than the right of each and every one of us to have a roof over our heads. Or is it just me?
© The Editor