The Gold Rush restarts?

Some big news for the housing market his week. On Wednesday, the statutory instrument listing the “reasonable excuses” to leave your home was amended to allow viewings, site visits, home moves, and any other activity relating to the sale, letting, or purchase of a residential property. You can read the amended Health Protection Regulations here. They were laid before parliament without any debate. Regulation 6 of the original regulations is amended to allow:

“…any of the following activities in connection with the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property: 1 Visiting estate or letting agents, developer sales offices or show home. 2 Viewing residential properties to look for a property to buy or rent. 3 Preparing a residential property to move in. 4 Moving home. 5 Visiting a residential property to undertake any activities required for the rental or sale of that property.” Continue reading

After the Deluge

Margaret Thatcher believed in small government. She sold off much of the public sector, including millions of council houses. Her vision of the ideal local authority was just a committee handing out private sector contracts for the whole gamut of services.

How times change! The party of Margaret Thatcher has now become the party of big government. It has nationalised half of the UK economy, shut the other half and kept us locked up for the past seven weeks, at peril of being fined or arrested. The homeless have been swept off the streets, and millions of people are stuck at home on the government payroll. Has government ever been bigger or more powerful?

It proves the point that, regardless of what we have been told about the wonders of the market, when the proverbial hits the fan it is government and government alone that can call the shots, and get things done (or not as the case may prove to be).

It seems that social distancing will be with us for some time to come but, regardless of when this all ends, most people agree that life can never be the same again, especially in housing. The crisis has tested the quality and durability of our housing stock to breaking point and, for millions of people, it has been found wanting. In particular, those who have been stuck in flats have suffered hugely, particularly when the park-Stasi are ever-vigilant. The figures will show that the worst-housed have suffered the most. Yet all the major decisions have been made by people living comfortably in houses with gardens, or more than one house in some cases.

The future will be different on a number of levels, all of which could impact on housing. Unemployment will be higher, and earnings will be lower. The virus has spread more rapidly in urban areas and there will likely be a rejection of high-density urban living and a preference for houses with gardens. There are already signs of a yearning to return to a simpler life of self-sufficiency, with sales of poultry and seeds rising dramatically. The impacts on the housing market could be profound. Above all, once this is all over, or even before, there must be a wide public debate about the links between poor health and housing, similar to the debates that were held in the mid-nineteenth century when Edwin Chadwick and others were arguing the case for housing and sanitary reform.

As a sector and as a society we must resist any attempts to return to business as usual. Over the past forty years spending on housing has shifted dramatically from investment and into  personal support and demand-side subsidies. It has been a complete failure. We must reject the evils that have arisen as a result – homelessness, rough sleeping, unaffordable rents and out-of-reach house prices. We must stop chucking money at Help to Buy and the free market. We must oppose insecure and unsafe homes.

I am sure that you will have your own thoughts, but here is my ten-point plan for the future. A couple are tongue in cheek, but you can decide what they are:

  1. A massive programme of public housebuilding,  with an annual target of 100,000 well-designed social rent homes within 3 years. This will create millions of jobs, and boost the economy and pay for itself within a generation.
  2. Adopt the German method of control over rent increases in the Private Rented Sector, with greater security of tenure.
  3. End street homelessness within three years by building new social rent homes and requisitioning under-used hotels for homeless people
  4. End all subsidies to the demand side of the housing market – Help to Buy and etc.
  5. Nationalise all the housebuilders, and break them up into smaller locally-controlled units, with a mix of public and private ownership.
  6. No housing association to own more than 20,000 homes or to operate in more than four adjacent local authorities. This would promote local control and accountability.
  7. All green belt land without any designated aesthetic status to be nationalised with compensation at Existing Use Value to owners. Roughly, a third should be used for housing (particularly near transport hubs), a third for community access and a third for smallholdings and allotments (so that we can become more self-sufficient in food). The number of allotments nationally to be trebled.
  8. A land value tax to end speculation in land, abolish the Land Compensation Act of 1961 and all agricultural land identified for development to be requisitioned at EUV plus 10 percent so that landowners are compensated. Uplifts in land values would fund new homes and community facilities
  9. All golf courses to be nationalised at EUV and turned over the local authorities for leisure or housing where appropriate. (Owners to be compensated with a private crazy golf course in an area of their choice).
  10. Huge investment in affordable social care so that old people can live in dignity, with staff  fully trained to and resourced to cope with a future pandemic.

For decades we have been told that our housing problems cannot be solved by public investment or public regulation, that the market is king, that home ownership is the only acceptable tenure and that governments have a limited role to play. The past few weeks have proved otherwise, and shown that governments can tackle problems when they really want to. What we need to see is a kind of modern day version of the dissolution of the monasteries where power and wealth is shifted  away from corporate and landed vested interests and towards the people. We have an all-powerful national plan to tackle Covid-19, we need an even better plan to fight the viruses of poverty and inequality.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network)

A Curfew chronicle

I find it hard to write about anything other than Covid-19 and the lockdown at present. I am sure there will come a time when some form of normal life returns and housing becomes important again, but for now it seems to me it’s a case of “ All changed, changed utterly”.

As I wrote in my last blog, your experience of the curfew will depend upon your wealth, your work, your housing situation and your personality. To misquote Tolstoy, “The lockdown is alike for all of us, but we all experience it in our own way.” Some people I know have been busier than ever, others are bored witless. Some people, mostly introverts, enjoy it. Extroverts are finding it hard.

So this is my experience, living alone in a small town in Kent. Here, the skies are bluer, the birdsong is louder, the blossom is more blossomy and the air feels purer. The swallows have arrived and white-tailed eagles have been spotted. Nature goes on regardless of our human condition.

I try to stick to a daily routine. To start with, I have been sleeping badly, often awake at 5am with strange dreams. Many people seem to be experiencing the same. I read the news and look at Twitter and Facebook in bed. Then yoga and a coffee in front of morning TV until Piers Morgan becomes unbearable. I still have work so that takes up a few hours in the morning, with a break for breakfast. In the afternoon I might go to the allotment (counted as exercise) or a long walk or run. I am reading novels and working my way through Netflix. I watched the whole of Porridge on iPlayer – this sitcom of people being banged up in prison was somehow familiar and comforting. The allotment is a godsend and so far no one has tried to close them down. In the evening I try to give myself a treat, something to look forward to, a piece of chocolate or some fruit. I am also running errands for the old folk locally picking up food and prescriptions. I registered as an NHS volunteer but so far there have been no calls.

I have not touched another human being for at least six weeks.

The days merge together. On Saturdays I treat myself to a bacon sandwich but wake up each morning wondering what day of the week it is. If I suddenly realise it is Saturday the joy is overwhelming! Small things.

I have fought a few battles on social media. Our local Facebook groups are interesting. At first, there was a lot of anger against people who were seen to be breaking the rules, such as having picnics or sunbathing. I asked people not to be so judgemental. I posted the actual legislation pointing out that there was no time limit on exercise or a ban on driving to a place of exercise and was accused of giving ammunition to the rule breakers. “But these are the actual rules!” I protested. The guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs has been helpful as it makes it clear what you can and cannot do.

The curfew has brought out the very best in some people, the very worst in others. The pitchfork mentality seems to have calmed down a little, perhaps people are now more fatalistic.

I also became incensed at the decision by some councils to close parks, notably Victoria Park in East London and Brockwell Park in Lambeth. Both criminal decisions in my view, when Londoners need as much space as possible to keep their distance from others. I supported calls to open the golf courses to the public.

Some days I try to ignore the news – too depressing, too anodyne. On other days I read as much as I can about the science and the wider impact of the disease (QUALYs and WELLBYs anyone?), and the fact that 20,000 extra deaths are predicted from cancer as a result of cancelled treatments and operations. The Swedish experience is interesting. I am suspicious of the “we are just following the science” mantra when scientific opinion appears to vary so widely. I despair at the quality of our ministers and the fact that they seem to be ignoring the wider impacts of lockdown. Some days I am staggered at the notion of closing down an economy based on such confusing evidence, on other days I am fatalistic. I worry about young people and how they are suffering. I worry that any discussion of easing the lockdown has been banned and that people will start to despair. There are already signs that people are voting with their feet and ending it on their own terms. At the same time, I have been alarmed at how supine most people have been and the lack of challenge or protest.

Without doubt this is the biggest event of our lives. It is history, right now. The only thing that comes close is perhaps the power cuts of the early seventies when we sat in darkness night after night. We will look back on this period as BC and AC, before and after Covid-19. BC will be looked upon as some kind of prelapsarian golden age perhaps? Historians will spend years writing about it – the medical, behavioural and economic aspects. In the meantime we are at the eye of the storm. How will it be when it is all over? Will it ever be over? Like most people I do not think we can ever go back to how we were and I will write more about the changes we need to see next week.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network)

Housing, class and Coronavirus

When the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne were struck down by Coronavirus there was a lot of guff in the media about this being a democratic disease that can strike everyone, be they high or low. Yet it is quite clear that those who are badly housed and those who occupy the lower ends of the social scale are hardest hit by the disease and its wider impact.

“Front-line” workers – like nurses and bus drivers – are suffering the most, and all the evidence shows that the most densely populated places – London, New York –  have been hit hardest by the virus, and within those cities it is the overcrowded who are also most affected.

The World Health Organisation says that, “..inadequate shelter and overcrowding are major factors in the transmission of diseases with epidemic potential such as acute respiratory infections, meningitis, typhus, cholera, scabies, etc. Outbreaks of disease are more frequent and more severe when the population density is high.” This is exactly the same message delivered by Sir Edwin Chadwick in his 1842 “Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain”, which led to the 1848 Public Health Act. Chadwick  concluded that, “…the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom…disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion with the physical circumstances above specified…” Some things have changed little in the past 180 years.

The latest English Housing Survey says that just over 1 percent of owner-occupied housing was overcrowded compared to 8 percent in the social housing sector and 6.2 percent for private renting. By contrast, around 52 percent of owners had more space than they needed compared to only 9 percent of social renters. Cambridge virologist Dr Chris Smith estimates that over 80 percent of Coronavirus cases are transmitted within the household, so the more cramped you are the more at risk you are.

There is also growing evidence from here and the USA that BAME folk are disproportionately affected by the disease. My hunch is that this is less likely to be a genetic predisposition, but due to the fact that BAME households are more likely to be multi- generational and overcrowded, and so a fertile breeding ground for the virus.

Imagine if you live in a cramped flat in east London with four children, or in one of the micro-flats of 15 square metres that I wrote about in this recent Intergenerational Foundation report. Perhaps you are living in one of the tiny flats created under Permitted Development Rights, surrounded by arterial roads and business parks and with single aspect windows facing north?  Imagine the hell of daily life. You go out for your daily exercise and finally arrive at the park (if there is one) and sit down to enjoy the fresh air, and you are harassed by the police, or called a traitor by Piers Morgan, even though that fresh air and rest might be the only thing between you and violence.

The space outside your front door is critical for mental and physical wellbeing during this crisis, yet the poor have less of it. In London there are almost ten million people occupying the space that held only 6.4 million in the 1980s. Is it any wonder that it is hard to keep two metres away from other people?  A Guardian/LSE  analysis shows that Londoners in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have less public space and  less access to private gardens. A third of all land in the wealthiest 10 percent of London wards was private gardens and just over a third of the land was parks, compared to a fifth of land in the poorest 10 percent of wards being gardens and only a quarter being parks.

That is why the decision by Tower Hamlets and Lambeth Councils to close Victoria Park and Brockwell Park, forcing pedestrians and cyclists onto narrow (and thus more dangerous) streets and canal towpaths was a criminal decision, and  could only have been made by people with houses and gardens. That is also why we need to open the golf courses to the public!

It is this housing and class divide –  the inability of the well-housed to understand how the badly-housed live – that has been one of the most shocking aspects of this crisis, to me at least. On social media a Stasi-like pitchfork mob has appeared, calling for anyone who has the temerity to sit down in a public place to be named and shamed, or worse. I would bet that all of these keyboard warriors live in houses with gardens.

And what of the wider impacts of this crisis? All commentators agree that there will be added deaths and misery caused by cancelled operations, collapsing businesses, rising domestic violence and child abuse, alcoholism, obesity or malnutrition (yes both), mental health problems, not to mention the community discord caused by snitching on neighbours. Yet ministers have not yet received a report from civil servants about the wider impact of the most draconian curfew since the war. Incredible. Surely any competent government would require daily reports on the impact of their decision, in order to balance the health emergency outcomes against the wider damage to society and our civil structures?

It was ever thus. The poor will always suffer the most during any pandemic. In 1665 the plague killed a quarter of London’s population, but it was mostly the poor who died – the rich decamped to the countryside. Nothing has changed: today the well-off can  scuttle away to their second or holiday homes (even our Minister has done it) or hunker down at home with plenty of indoor and outdoor space and their Ocado deliveries, while the flat-dwelling poor are left with empty shelves and barricaded or over-policed parks.

After this crisis is over, perhaps we can have a reasoned debate about the health and other inequalities caused by bad and overcrowded housing? I will hold my breath.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network. See here)