London: Decent homes for all… Has the social housing dream died?

Before catastrophe hit Grenfell Tower, it had been planned to publish this feature last weekend. Then, in the immediate aftermath, it was clear that this would be the wrong thing to do, to talk about related but not-identical issues of public housing. It would have been at once too close to the news about Grenfell and not close enough. Now, although the horror is still raw and much about it is still unknown, it has also become clear that Grenfell exposes in the harshest possible way questions of the current state of social housing, about the accessibility, affordability and quality of homes, and their impact on people’s lives. As is reported today, research by Shelter shows that a million households are at risk of homelessness unless a freeze on housing benefit is lifted.

These questions, which are the subject of the new documentary Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle, were already urgent. The election, with its upending of Conservative complacencies and old assumptions, increases the chances that the issues will be addressed with at least some of the radicalism they require. Given the newfound power of the youth vote, the group worst affected by the housing crisis, a large electoral prize awaits the party who can get this subject right. Dispossession offers few solutions, but it adds to the buildup of anger on the subject, without which nothing will change.

The documentary describes the long-term effects of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy – “probably the most popular ever introduced by a Conservative government”, according to a rare rightwing voice in the film, Thatcher’s former adviser Christopher Monckton. It was wonderful for many who benefited from it – even if some found that property ownership was not the promised land they had expected – but destructive of local authorities’ ability to respond to housing need. Its selling off of publicly owned housing has contributed to the ever more immense bill for housing benefit, and created the absurd and wasteful situation whereby local authorities have to pay high rents to house people in homes the councils once owned, but have now been bought by private landlords.

Published by: The Guardian (25 June 2017)
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