There are times when that most basic human necessity – to have a roof over one’s head – becomes a crisis that demands action. The years following the devastation of housing stock during WWII air raids was one such time, even if many of the dwellings destroyed by the Luftwaffe were poor, insanitary slum residences that had already been condemned. Those homes of similar quality to survive the Blitz staggered on through the 1950s and into the 60s, however unfit for human habitation they might have been; unsurprisingly, most were situated in high-density urban areas and were home to people on low (or no) incomes – the kind of dilapidated hovels often captured on campaigning documentaries of the era, the kind infested by bugs, vermin and rising damp, boasting inadequate facilities, outdoor privies and tin baths in front of the fire.

Whilst the big money went on designing New Towns, the rest of the urgent housing needs were solved by ‘Large Panel System Building’, the revolutionary production line process whereby the components for (primarily) tower blocks were cast off-site and then assembled on-site like Meccano. It was a fast and – more importantly – cheap method of re-housing that those re-housed from Victorian slums understandably regarded as luxurious, suddenly finding themselves in shiny new flats with all mod cons. This was the last gasp of the great – and, on paper, laudable – social housing project spanning the first quarter-century after the War, and it took a disaster to curtail it.

In May 1968, Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London hit the headlines when a gas explosion provoked the collapse of one side of the building. Because the block had been open for just a couple of months, only a tiny handful of its apartments were occupied and the death toll was restricted to four people. But the shocking image of the damage done I would imagine sent a collective shiver down the spine of those living in identical flats comparable to the impact the Grenfell inferno had on those whose streets in the sky had also been redecorated in flammable cladding. Ironically, the planning regulations that eventually came into force as a result of Ronan Point have been stated by some as saving Grenfell Tower (opened in 1974) from collapse when it was ablaze. While Ronan Point may have effectively ended the era of the tower block as a solution to a housing crisis, many of those erected prior to 1968 – and those built immediately afterwards, which had been given the go-ahead beforehand – were also riddled with defects reflecting the speediness of their construction and the poor quality materials used.

As a child, I had an auntie who lived on a huge housing estate comprising interconnected low-level blocks of around half-a-dozen storeys; virtually isolated on an island surrounded by busy roads, the estate was nicknamed ‘Alcatraz’ and was a sprawling, aesthetically ugly concrete jungle of a home. It had only been built around the same time as Ronan Point, yet even in the early 70s I remember it seemed to be falling apart, plagued with all the problems that came with the LPS process. My auntie’s flat had the permanent unmistakable odour of damp flowing through it that was as pungent as the stench of piss in the lifts that carried visitors up to her floor. The whole rotten estate was demolished in the early 80s, after standing for no more than a decade. But the failure of such schemes, driven by ambition and destroyed by corner (and cost) cutting, seems to have led us to where we are now. Similar estates that survived were refashioned as a dumping ground for ‘problem families’ and antisocial tenants that nobody wanted living next-door. Social housing became a dirty word.

The news that the Government is to shake-up planning rules and regulations in order to fast-track the desperately-needed delivery of new houses has received a mixed response. Boris Johnson has attempted to alleviate the worries of those who cannot afford to own their own homes at a time when a post-lockdown ‘mini-boom’ has pushed house prices back up to their usual astronomical levels; he stated social housing would constitute a large part of his reforms. The lockdown has exposed not only the fears of homelessness amongst many renters whose landlords have not exactly been sympathetic to their furloughed tenants, but has also highlighted the cramped conditions families have had to endure in order to ‘stay alert’. The fact that the old ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ requirement is now rightly consigned to history doesn’t alter the fact that many contemporary renters on Housing Benefit already have enough to worry about, still confronted as they are by the ‘No DSS’ bar, which is just as antiquated a form of discrimination, especially considering the DSS hasn’t existed since 2001.

Of course, not all planning regulations were created to thwart and frustrate noble property developers; we’ve all seen the way some homeowners and landlords attempt to skirt around current rules, squeezing extensions into every available space, erecting endless dormers and converting garages into dwellings. Many are concerned any relaxation will be exploited by less benign builders and will push even more into miserable surroundings. A friend of mine rented a recently-built house on a shiny new estate around 20 years back and I remember being struck by the low ceilings and claustrophobic rooms; the small scale of the interior was as though it had been designed to house a family of Munchkins. That experience confirmed to me that the dimensions of new homes were undoubtedly smaller in the same way photographic evidence makes it clear how Mars Bars have shrunk over the years.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has expressed concerns that the reforms could lead to shoddy slum properties, whilst housing charity Shelter is worried social housing will be a casualty of what Labour has called a ‘property developer’s charter’; the proposed changes imply decisions over where to build will be taken out of local council hands and give more power to central government; and it goes without saying that central government will be less sensitive to local issues, risking provoking ‘Nimby’ protests, particularly when it comes to greenbelt land. However, the Local Government Association claims the housing crisis in this country is not due to the planning system but to the fact that nine out of ten approved planning applications given the green light end up not being built. What all this makes clear is that something needs to be done, but can we trust this Government to do it right?

The concerted effort to clear the streets of (and house) homeless rough-sleepers during the lockdown shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to instigate, but it equally shouldn’t take the eventual submission of Covid-19 before it becomes enshrined as official policy that no one should have to sleep in a shop doorway. At the same time, the place we know as home should also be a step up from a kennel. If the new planning regulations lead to a long-overdue building programme reminiscent of the ones that spanned the 50s to the 70s, great; but it is to be hoped the same mistakes made then can be avoided. Having somewhere to live needs to be recognised as a universal human right, but the quality of that living space matters too; the ministerial trumpeting that often accompanies ‘the creation of thousands of new jobs’ can come across as meaningless box-ticking if the nature of the work is deemed secondary to the simple fact the job has been created. We don’t need a housing version of Government coronavirus policy, whereby people are being kept alive whilst simultaneously being denied living.

© The Editor


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


With this country’s housing currently in the kind of crisis it hasn’t reached since the aftermath of the Blitz, the lack of urgency and action on the part of government often beggars belief. One would imagine ensuring everyone has a roof over their head should be at the top of any administration’s agenda, but what is actually being done? A chronic absence of affordable homes; a pitifully low amount of new houses being built; purpose-built social housing virtually abolished; soaring rents also pricing people out of that market; mean-minded schemes such as depriving unemployed 18-21 year-olds of Housing Benefit – all paint a portrait of remarkable ineptitude and uncaring indifference on the part of our elected representatives.

And into this troubled arena returns the ominous, unwelcome spectre of the kind of landlord who gives landlords a bad name – not quite a throwback to either infamous property tycoon gangster Nicholas van Hoogstraten or the notorious slum tyrant of 50s Notting Hill, Peter Rachman; but certainly one bearing all the old ‘No Irish/No Dogs/No Blacks’ prejudices prevalent prior to the Rent Act of 1965.

Millionaire Fergus Wilson, often referred to as ‘Britain’s biggest landlord’ (having owned over a thousand properties at one point), has hit the headlines due to his attitudes towards certain types of potential tenants via a leaked list of his letting criteria supplied to the letting agents Evolution. This illuminating document reveals he and his company do not want tenants with children under 18, no single mums or single fathers, no tenants on Housing Benefits, no low-income workers and no single adults. That does narrow it down quite a bit; few with little choice but to seek rented accommodation don’t fall into any of those categories, after all. But Mr Wilson obviously has standards to maintain. He won’t accept victims of domestic abuse as tenants either; ‘battered wives’ are apparently more trouble than they’re worth.

As biased and bigoted as that list reveals Fergus Wilson to be, it is his antiquated racism that has made him a target for online abuse. According to this list, one of his other specifications regarding tenants is that he won’t let to – in his own words – ‘coloured people’ because of ‘the curry smell at the end of the tenancy’. Firstly, the assumption that what has long been the country’s No.1 dish of choice is only consumed by ‘coloured people’ is remarkably ill-informed; secondly, to attribute that particular dish as a main cause of damage to his properties when tenants move out suggests his judgement is severely impaired by his prejudices.

A friend of mine who rented out his former home when he couldn’t sell it experienced the unpleasant reality of trouble tenants, who left the property a tip when they did a runner, though they were neither ‘coloured’ nor used curry to reinforce their contempt for the tenancy agreement.

Fergus Wilson has reported the abuse he’s received to Kent Police, but has also been airing his opinions in the Sun, which make him sound like an even bigger idiot than the leaked list did. ‘It is a problem with certain types of coloured people – those who consume curry,’ he says. ‘It sticks to the carpet. You have to get some chemical thing that takes the smell out. In extreme cases you have to replace the carpet.’ He goes on to deny that which he has been accused of by saying: ‘My stance is that it is neither racist nor discrimination to refuse to take people from any ethnic background on the basis that there is a heightened risk of injury to the house.’

His denials are then contradicted by further statements such as: ‘To be honest, we’re getting overloaded with coloured people’ and ‘In a predominantly white English area, almost all landlords will not let to Indian or Pakistani tenants because of the smell of curry.’ He clearly has a problem with curry, that famed foodstuff favoured by those bloody ‘coloured people’. If only they stuck to fish and chips, how much easier Fergus Wilson’s life would be.

Evolution, recipients of Mr Wilson’s specifications, has distanced itself from his comments and has made it clear they do not endorse his attitudes. Other organisations dedicating to helping the homeless or representing the renting sector from both sides have followed suit. The online attacks he’s been subjected to since his criteria was made public are of an ilk that many who are nowhere near as bigoted, though have a habit of expressing unfashionable opinions, have suffered from recently; however, to hold up Fergus Wilson as some heroic beacon of anti-PC free speech misses the point.

As a landlord – and an extremely wealthy one – Mr Wilson is in a position where some of society’s most vulnerable citizens are forced to approach him for assistance. For him to discriminate on the grounds of social or racial status, rather than exclude the worst kind of tenants due to their lack of respect for the property, is lamentable at a time when so many are in such dire need, whether or not they have an appetite for curry. Desperation for a roof over one’s head doesn’t distinguish on any grounds. The tenancy agreement between landlord and tenant is a contract of mutual understanding; if both adhere to the terms, there’s no reason why the relationship cannot be a harmonious one.

Having lived in rented accommodation for over twenty years, I’ve experienced both bad landlords and good ones; I may have kept pets when I wasn’t supposed to, but I’ve always paid my rent on time and I’ve always left the properties as I found them when the time has come to move on. I even left a fridge freezer and a mattress behind at my last address, neither of which was there when I arrived, so I hope my successor made the most of them. Maybe it’s time Fergus Wilson retired to his inevitable yacht in Monaco and left his business in the hands of those who recognise that when so many in this country are so desperate for somewhere to live, landlords are uniquely qualified to do what government is so spectacularly failing to.

© The Editor


yosserYesterday, it was both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day – coincidence? The two issues are often intertwined, though while giving both a ‘day’ might seem like altruistic recognition, what does such an event actually do other than briefly inspire a temporary conscience? At one time, whole years used to be devoted to the raising of awareness; I recall the Year of the Child and the Year of the Disabled in the late 70s/early 80s. But 24 hours? There was probably a lot of online trending, and no doubt wristbands would have been worn had they been made available, imbuing those who wore them whilst tweeting with a sense of entitlement to a compassionate pat on the back. Once the caring sharing interlude expired, however, there was probably a return to the topic of someone being voted off ‘The X Factor’ or speculating over the relationship between a wealthy, vacuous bint and a wealthy, vacant himbo.

Homelessness cuts across all age groups, though the young are joining the ranks at record rates. Statistics from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint claim there are an estimated 80,000 homeless people in the UK under the age of 40, with upwards of 30,000 denied local authority assistance due to slashed funding. Another statistic from the same source estimates a rise of 12,000 in the last couple of years amongst the young; they also reckon 88% have some form of mental illness, with many emanating from broken or abusive homes as well as limited local authority care.

The gradual closure of the children’s home system, along with that other institution with the blackened reputation, the mental home, has placed tremendous pressure upon foster carers and the public services that can no longer rely on the kind of government subsidies they desperately need. Several thousand homeless young people are currently applying for some form of assistance, but what becomes of the 30,000 who don’t receive it? Whereas many of the youngsters of no fixed abode regularly travel from one friend’s sofa to another, there are others for whom the pavement is the only option, not to mention all the dangers that can bring with it. Yet this is a country with 700,000 empty houses.

A couple of years ago, an investigation by the Guardian found that a third of the mansions on the so-called ‘Billionaire’s Row’ of The Bishops Avenue near Hampstead Heath were standing empty, some of which had been unoccupied for over a quarter-of-a century. Many were purchased by Saudi Sheiks decades ago, never inhabited and allowed to fall into disrepair, ironically creating the uniquely obscene juxtaposition of one of the country’s most expensive residential neighbourhoods being as derelict as a rundown council estate, both as awful a comment on the state of the nation as each other. This is a capital city where some boroughs boast houses priced at more than twenty times the average salary, and its streets remain home to thousands of people whose roof is a shop doorway.

Beyond London, the situation isn’t much better. An eye-witness to it in Northampton town centre early yesterday morning reported to me a Victorian level of street residents stirring from another night deprived of a roof over their heads, a scene straight out of Dickens transplanted to the twenty-first century. The invisible men and women who often only catch the eye if they have a canine companion were ones I first noticed upon my inaugural foray into (of all places) Westminster forty years ago; it was an uncomfortable encounter with a side of life new to me then, but one that has now become so depressingly familiar wherever in the country one happens to be that even our best intentions cannot always help but render the sight an accepted part of the urban wallpaper.

Homelessness and the chronic lack of affordable housing is arguably the biggest crisis facing today’s society, yet it remains relatively low on the list of priorities for either government or government-in-waiting if the recent party conferences are anything to go by. A good deal of talking is done when the subject raises its head, but no administration of any colour has put such talk into action for generations. And if a frontbench member of the ‘people’s party’ such as the appalling Emily Thornberry can sneer at the working-class with a white van tweet, God only knows what she must think of the homeless. Perhaps she also steps over them when exiting the opera, as Andrew Mitchell famously quipped.

The ageing gentleman of the highway was a traditional music-hall character and one that had remarkable longevity within popular culture, manufacturing an archaic archetype – usually Irish – of a meths-quaffing, shambling, bearded tramp with long, unkempt hair, a battered hat and a dirty overcoat that remained the popular image of homelessness for generations. It was probably only ever one example of the homeless population all along, but it is utterly irrelevant today. Spirits were once consumed to block out the misery, whereas other stimulants are more likely to provide the same service in 2016. The association of street beggars with illicit substances, and the conviction that every penny begged will contribute towards the next score, is rooted in a degree of truth where a minority are concerned, though the widespread belief that all are in the same game probably reflects a widespread ignorance of just how much ‘drugs’ cost, let alone actual awareness of why anyone would feel the need to indulge in the first place.

Something has to be done about this pressing problem, as it has for decades; but underfunded local authorities and charities cannot do it on their own, especially when the powers-that-be almost seem convinced the state of affairs is due to Providence rather than avoidable circumstance, just as their forebears did a couple of hundred years ago. There is no more shameful example of inequality within this country than the fact that so many of its citizens have nowhere to live. It’s just not good enough, Theresa and Jezza. Get your bloody fingers out.

© The Editor


rigsbyIn the last year of the twentieth century and the first couple of the twenty-first, I rented the ground floor of a house from an elderly landlady whose deceptive ‘old dear’ demeanour masked a not-so-sweet disposition that assumed owning the property entitled her to let herself into it whenever she felt like it. I once caught her by surprise when she imagined I was out and I heard her turning the key in the lock; I retreated to the bedroom and waited until she strolled in before emerging and inquiring as to the nature of her intrusion. I can’t recall the explanation she offered up on the spot, but her cheek was characteristic of a Rigsby-like nosiness where her tenants were concerned; and I wondered how many occasions had taken place when I hadn’t been present to witness this illegal action.

Granted, I had a dog and a cat, neither of which were allowed (but then they never are when you rent), and having to hide them whenever she came round in person to collect the rent every Thursday evening was a perennial headache, for she didn’t simply stand in the doorway and receive the money whilst jotting the exchange down in the rent book; she had to come into the flat, sit down, natter and nose. Eventually, she sold the property (which consisted of five separate apartments) and we the tenants were given notice of eviction. I found somewhere else up the road and have never had those kind of problems with a landlord or landlady ever since. It seems I’ve been fortunate.

According to a new survey by the housing charity Shelter, there are over a million tenants living in privately rented accommodation in the country today who are experiencing the same problems I endured over fifteen years ago – and worse. 7.5% of the ones interviewed for the survey said they too were familiar with the owners of the property entering it without giving their tenants a week’s warning, which is the law. More extreme cases of abuse on the part of so-called ‘rogue landlords’ included intimidating behaviour and threats as well as cutting off gas or electric, the kind of tactics reminiscent of ‘Pop’, the repulsive character from ‘The League of Gentlemen’, who sits down of an evening to watch secret CCTV footage of the tenants he bullies and rips off with relish. One landlord even went so far as to hold a replica gun to the head of one of his tenants as part of a campaign of intimidation.

A lack of awareness when it comes to their rights is something that makes many tenants ripe for exploitation at the hands of the most unscrupulous landlords, though the Shelter survey does point out that the worst offenders are relatively small in number and the majority of tenants are content with their landlords or letting agents. Moreover, the National Landlords Association claim that their own survey shows ‘82% of tenants say they are happy with their current landlord’. Without wishing to cast stereotypical aspersions, one cannot but wonder if the least content tenants are either newly arrived immigrants or students, both lacking worldly-wise antennae when confronted by an evident conman and therefore begging to be fleeced in the eyes of the rogue landlord.

The separate research undertaken by the National Landlords Association also takes into account the other side of the situation, whereby landlords have encountered antisocial tenants, with 3 out of 10 landlords in the UK reporting verbal or physical abuse from those renting. So, it does cut both ways. In the case of the latter issue, the buy-to-let landlords who have capitalised on having a sizeable amount of spare cash by buying houses and then renting them out as a means of paying the mortgage have equally played their part in the housing crisis. An Office of National Statistics report released this week revealed the depressing fact that the average age of a first-time house-buyer in London today is 34. It’s no wonder renting is booming and that some are taking advantage of the climate.

An unforeseen bonus is that rogue landlords can sometimes unite tenants, who come together as a community when one of them is threatened. A private tenant and her five children in Bristol this week was poised to be evicted from her home of 12 years simply because she had repeatedly reported the damp in her house to her landlord. However, when the bailiffs turned up to evict her, other residents of the neighbourhood formed a human chain around the property and succeeded in preventing the eviction from taking place. The action was promoted by Acorn, a local organisation that fights for the rights of tenants, and the chain was a 30-strong barrier to making a mother and her children homeless due to the fact that she made a legitimate complaint to someone whose duty it was to resolve it.

Having lived in rented accommodation for all of my adult life, I have been witness to both the good and bad sides of the arrangement and, never having been in a financial position whereby I can purchase my own property, I’ve had no option but to make do with renting as best I can. A decent landlord or letting agent will respond promptly when any of the fixtures and fittings have ceased to function and need repairing or replacing; as long as the tenant pays the rent and doesn’t flagrantly and repeatedly stretch the patience of their fellow tenants, there’s no reason why the arrangement shouldn’t work.

I know from experience the kind of tricks private landlords can play on their tenants, though I also know from experience how some tenants take the piss and can make life miserable for their fellow tenants as much as those they’re renting from. About five years ago, I and the man in the flat below me had to combine forces in order to persuade the agents letting our home to evict the noise polluters on the ground floor who were wilfully disrupting the harmony of the household beyond a tolerable level. Tenant can on occasion be as bad as landlord, and with no glimmer of hope on the horizon for affordable housing at an age younger than mid-30s, the likelihood of the rented sector increasing means the balance between the two has to be one that benefits both rather than either or.

And on a lighter note…

© The Editor


Thatcher‘A good day to bury bad news’ is a pretty despicable political practice that first entered the public consciousness when Jo Moore, the Spad of New Labour Minister Stephen Byers, decided the day of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 was just such a day. The leak of the email outlining this loathsome strategy served to inflict another dint in the facade of Blair’s administration as being somehow morally superior to its sleazy Tory predecessor; but the tactic remains a regular feature of government seeking to sneak a policy under the radar.

Headline-wise, it’s been a busy month or so, what with the Paris attacks, the Cumbrian floods, the all-day vote on Syrian airstrikes and the U-turn over tax credits in the face of obstinate opposition from the Lords; in a sense, the perfect moment to slip an important change to a particular law through the back door whilst the world is looking elsewhere. And the Government is busily doing so.

Ever since the great building projects of the 60s and 70s, when the legacy of wartime bombing and insanitary Victorian slums forced the governments of the two Harolds – Macmillan and Wilson – to embark upon the radical transformation of British towns, linking them with a motorway network and erecting towering social housing on a scale unseen in living memory, successive administrations have rested on their laurels when it comes to tackling the needs of those who can’t afford to buy homes. The policy of council tenants purchasing their houses, initially a Labour light-bulb that Mrs Thatcher sold as a liberation from council control, wasn’t followed by a Plan B that consisted of building replacement rented abodes for those now in private ownership, and there has been no concerted effort to invest in mass social housing by any government since.

Today, of course, one has to practically win the Lottery to even buy the most modest of houses, so one could argue there has never been a greater need for new social housing; but the limited number of residences available to rent has pushed up the price of that rent to the point where even this option for the millions unable to buy has become akin to an eBay auction. The situation is at its worst in the capital, where houses to buy are solely within the means of Russian Oligarchs whose properties spend half of the year empty, and rents for those who didn’t make a dubious mint under Yeltsin’s chaotic economic reforms are so astronomical that it’s only a matter of time before private landlords invest in the cardboard box market.

And what is this government’s response to what should really be a top priority political issue? Well, for an administration that has already cut housing benefit and introduced the Bedroom Tax, hopes are hardly high. The Housing Minister Brandon Lewis has tabled an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill poised to go through its third reading in the Commons, sneakily – and quietly – adding a proposal to abolish lifetime (or ‘secure’) tenancies for residents of council houses. This fresh kick in the teeth for those too poor or powerless to fight back will present new council tenants with a contract of two to five years in duration, at the end of which their case will be reviewed; if it is thought the tenants are now earning enough money to be in debt to a building society for the rest of their lives, they will be turfed out and replaced with a more ‘deserving’ case.

This move will infect council tenants with a permanent sense of instability and uncertainty, unable to make any long-term plans for their home because they’ll have no idea as to whether or not it will cease to be so within a couple of years. It also risks fracturing the fragile community spirit that many neighbourhoods have taken decades to establish without any assistance from government, either local or national. The repair of the damage done by the careless manner in which communities were butchered during the urban facelift of fifty years ago has been a slow and gradual process, and now further legislation assessed by those who will never be affected by it comes along to place that community in peril. Whatever happened to ‘The Big Society’?

As of 2017/18, any council tenant earning in excess of £30,000 a year will have to fork out the full market rent for their home; if you’re lucky enough to live in London, the dividing line between poor and not-quite-so-poor will be set at earnings of £40,000 a year. The best part of 340,000 households will come under this ruling, but Man of the People George Osborne reckons it’ll rake in upwards of £240,000 for the Treasury, so that’s alright, then.

It is true that councils own far fewer houses now than they did around the time Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy operation; the vast majority of what used to be social housing is either in private hands or in the hands of various housing associations, whereas ‘council house’ has become a dirty word, summoning up images of sink estates populated by dog-fighting, drug-dealing chavs and ASBO kids in hoodies. Despite this, the waiting list for council homes remains lengthy simply because there aren’t enough of them. Many of those that councils still have on their books are being sold to tenants eager to exploit the Right to Buy principle at dirt-cheap prices, with a large amount of poachers then turning gamekeeper by renting the houses to housing benefit claimants, thus draining more from the public purse in the process. Since David Cameron altered the rules in 2012, over 20,000 Right to Buy houses have been sold by councils whereas barely 3,000 new ones have been built.

Rather than addressing this blatant problem, the Government seems content to keep devising endless schemes seemingly intended to punish and penalise people for being poor, sick or defenceless in the face of this relentless assault from powers-that-be that have the cushion of inherited wealth or wealth they married into, wealth that will prevent them from ever having to worry about a roof over their heads.

© The Editor