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)

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