Where do you live? Over a decades-long housing crisis in the UK, the answer to that question has become a complicated one. Our responsibilities and abilities as individuals to put down roots and participate in communities, to invest in the houses we live in and the areas that surround them, have been compromised by years of an unregulated private rental market, unaffordable home ownership and, above all, underinvestment by central government and local councils in the building of new social housing.
Today, one person in every two hundred in England and Wales is homeless. In the first four months of 2018, over 100,000 children in England were living in temporary accommodation, a figure that was up nearly 80 per cent since 2011. In his book about social housing in Britain, Municipal Dreams, John Boughton notes that in 1979, one in three of the population lived in council housing. Today, there are more people living in private rental accommodation than in social housing. A report produced by a cross-party commission in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire called for three million social homes to be built by 2040. And yet in cities up and down the country, but most acutely in London, luxury apartments go up at an alarming speed. The optics can be confusing, as can the economics. Who are these homes for? Who can afford to live there?
This is the context in which our roundtable on housing took place. Our conversation focused on social housing, which once provided genuinely affordable accommodation for the many. The participants traced a history from the beginning of social housing to the effects of Right to Buy to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. They discussed the psychological effects of bad housing, the vilification of estates as well as the joyful aspects of growing up in them, the failure of the private market, and how the negative consequences of gentrification might be lessened. As this roundtable shows, a conversation about housing is always a conversation about public space and community, as well as about safety and freedom.
JOHN BOUGHTON: We live in an Alice in Wonderland situation. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Guardian was reporting that councils are actually paying private landlords a bribe – not rent or anything like that – but an actual bribe to incentivise them to accept homeless households.
To go back to the question about ownership, I think there was a broad consensus after 1945 that the state had a duty towards its citizenry. Obviously that applied to health, and resulted in the NHS, but it certainly applied to housing too. There was an expectation that the state had a basic duty to provide decent, affordable housing to all of the population. But I think some of the shine and sheen had fallen from that by the 1970s. When Thatcher came into power in ‘79 there was a real sense of the ideology shifting. She articulated the new right-wing ideology of the time, which was private good, public bad. In her terms, that was a property-owning democracy. There’s a certain idealism around that too, from that political perspective. But of course in practice it’s been disastrous.
What you see really from the economic crisis of the mid-70s onwards, is this sense of public spending as being anathema. And we’ve lost – this might be changing now, I hope it is – that sense of investment. Investment in people, investment in communities. If you invest in housing, if you spend money building social housing, that’s the nest investment you can make in any individual, any child. That’s what Bridget was describing. We really need to retrieve that sense. We have to know what the value of something is rather than the cost.
SERAPHIMA KENNEDY: That’s what the Shelter commission that was set up post-Grenfell calls for actually: a massive investment in social housing over a prolonged period of time.
I think there’s a positive aspect to Right to Buy, which it might be useful to acknowledge, and that’s the impact for individual families. Perhaps that’s a political impact, actually, because maybe you’re more likely to be grateful to those in power if you’re able to buy and sell your home. For those families who benefit from it I think they would probably see Right to Buy as a good thing. My sister and her partner are proper grafters and they worked their way into home ownership through a council tenancy. On the other hand, it’s absolutely decimated the ability of the state to provide homes for people, for normal people.
BRIDGET MINAMORE: It can be positive on an individual level. It’s funny, when you were talking about overcrowding Seraphima, I always forget to point out the fact that our house was always hugely full because we had an extra box-room. There were only three of us but in immigrant working class communities, you don’t just live alone. You always have various cousins or quote-unquote cousins, aunties and uncles staying with you, often with- out Right to Work papers, often in this country illegally, although I don’t like using that term for people. Despite all that, I really did enjoy living in that home for a long time.
I understand the arguments for Right to Buy on an individual level. But again, I’d go back to the question of whether there’s a need to have homeownership beyond just making money? Maybe that’s the only reason. But I feel like, if the benefit of owning a home is that no one can force you out of it, if we had that security within social housing, how many people would really need to own their homes? I think we just have a really odd approach to housing in this country. In Ghana, you don’t have extra rooms in your house. You have rooms for family, but you know who you’re building that bedroom for before you build your home. At my aunt’s house, I have a bedroom because I go there every year and when I’m not there, a relative stays in it. I don’t understand this idea of having extra empty space. Why wouldn’t you just have a bigger living space so you could invite more people in?
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
JOHN BOUGHTON is a social historian whose book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April 2018 and recommended as an Observer Book of the Year. His popular blog, also called Municipal Dreams, which charts the history of council estates up and down the country, has had over 1.1 million views. He has published in the Historian and Labor History and gives talks on housing to a range of audiences. He is involved in a number of housing campaigns and lives in London.
SERAPHIMA KENNEDY is a poet, memoirist and journalist born in west London. Her poems have been published in The Rialto, Magma and And Other Poems and she has performed at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Poetry in Aldeburgh. In 2017, she was selected for the Jerwood Arvon mentoring programme and was also shortlisted for The White Review Poet’s Prize. She is a journalist and writes comment for the Guardian. She is a member of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen.
BRIDGET MINAMORE is a British-Ghanaian writer from south-east London. She is a poet, critic, essayist, and journalist, writing for the Guardian about pop culture, theatre, race and class. Titanic (Out-Spoken Press), her debut pamphlet of poems on modern love and loss, was published in May 2016.