This afternoon, MPs will vote on a proposed law. As a bit of policy, it is as belligerently incoherent as a drunk at 2am. As a piece of politics, it will harm millions of people, while making one of the gravest crises facing our country even worse. Yet I’m fairly sure this piece will be one of the few across the press and the BBC even to discuss it.
Granted, the housing and planning bill can never outdo the excitement surrounding the ups and downs of Hilary Benn, the new Mr Darcy of every wet-eyed columnist. But the UK housing market is a catastrophe so dire that it causes even Manhattanites to marvel. A recent Guardian interactive makes the point: any would-be homebuyer earning the national average of £26,500 will now find 91% of England and Wales beyond their reach. If you can’t buy, you rent – except in London, the epicentre of the madness where rents are so extortionate, newspapers compete for horror stories. Considerthe £480 a month charged for a mattress in the corner of a communal lounge in a shed in the east end.
You don’t need me to lather on facts and figures. Anyone trying to get a toehold in the housing market, or whose children are, already knows how badly broken it is – and grasps the implications. How it gouges money from those who don’t own only to put it in the pockets of those who do. How it forces anyone from outside London either to accept that they won’t be able to pursue a modestly paying career there – or will have to grind out at least a decade of expensive squalor to do so. And how that makes the UK both more unjust and economically weaker.
David Cameron knows all this. He even makes speeches about how homes in Britain are unaffordable to Britons. The bill in front of MPs is meant to free up social housing for those most in need and to make land and funds available for builders to churn out more private homes. In reality, it will make private homes even more unaffordable while cutting further the stock of homes available below market rent.
Look at the axe the government is taking to social housing. Before the 2010 general election, Cameron promised to “support” social housing while his soon-to-be ministers pledged to “protect social tenants’ rights and rents”. Now he’s phasing out secure tenancies for those same tenants. A couple living in a council home who earn a total of £30,000 a year (£40,000 within London) – that is, just above minimum wage – will be moved up to market rents. The Treasury will also force local authorities to flog “high value” homes once a family moves out. That spells the end for council housing in central London – specialists estimate that 60% of Camden’s housing stock and 70% of Islington’s would qualify as “high value”.
Couple it with what’s already happening in the private rental market – where poorer families are being pushed out to London’s perimeter, and you have a charter for turning the centre of the city into a rich-only enclave.
If this sounds like the sort of post-adolescent fantasy that would be sketched out in some Westminster thinktank, that’s because it is. Many of these policies have been lifted from the rightwing Policy Exchange. Until 2014 its former housing specialist, Alex Morton, churned out pamphlets such as Ending Expensive Social Tenancies, notably mainly for their flush-cheeked libertarianism, casual dismissal of the rights of those not on stellar incomes, and subheadings such as “Most people actually support forcing people to move from expensive properties”.
For such Rolls-Royce thinking, Morton is now paid somewhere between £53,000 and £69,999 of taxpayers’ money as a special adviser to the prime minister on housing policy – one of Cameron’s fleet of advisers whose salaries cost the public over £9m a year.
But what sounds good at a conference fringe meeting doesn’t always translate into robust law, and the housing bill has more holes than all the golf courses in suburbia. Try this: the household income assessment of council tenants will be based on the previous year’s earnings. So a family could go through redundancy, divorce or even death and still be forced to cough up “market rents”. Or this: the amount a council is meant to net from the sale of a publicly owned home will be set not by local surveyors, but by Treasury officials. Or this: although the bill’s fixed-term tenancies are aimed at making social housing more flexible, it provides no viable mechanism for evicting antisocial tenants before the term is up.
These are just some of the howlers in a document drafted by the Department for Communities and Local Government – the bit of Whitehall that will be almost obliterated in the spending cuts. As housing lawyer Giles Peaker says: “I seriously wonder who’s left in DCLG who actually understands housing law.”
The contradictions gape wider and wider. The government that plans to make more use of limited council housing also wants to sell council housing. The ministers who want to make work pay will also make work cost more for council tenants. The administration that think these changes are excellent for half the social-rented sector now won’t apply them to the other half – housing associations – on anything more than a voluntary basis.
Cameron’s big solution to the housing shortage is to invent a new category, “starter homes”, and encourage developers to build them. Developers building homes at up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of England will be able to claim them under the rules as “affordable”. As the housing charity Shelter points out, to buy a starter home in the capital by 2020 will require an annual income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000. That makes them unaffordable to all but the richest third of Londoners.
Excerpt from an article written by Aditya Chakraboty in The Independent January 2016