Something special happened in the run up to the May election: for the first time in a long while, housing was very firmly on the agenda for all parties. Promises were made by most of them to get more houses built and support first time buyers. The winners in May were no exception as they outlined a commitment to build 200 000 ‘homes that people can afford’ targeted at First Time Buyers aged under 40; put money into developing brownfield land for building; and extend Right to Buy to social housing tenants.
As a private renter, I noted the lack of policy relating to my tenure, standing as it did in sharp contrast to Labour and Green party plans to lengthen tenancies; cap rent increases and, in the case of the Greens, build more social housing. These policies may not have been perfect but they did constitute an acknowledgement that a) the Private Rented Sector (PRS) exists b) that a large and ever-increasing proportion of people find themselves looking at living in this sector for a long time and c) the PRS is highly problematic and not really fit for purpose for the complex needs of many of those who depend on it for a home. I’m sorry to say that the silence from the Conservatives on this particular issue continues to be deafening.
I guess many are wondering whether the promises made, unambitious and insufficient as they were, will be kept. Shelter clearly and probably quite rightly fear the worst as we approach the emergency budget and so are running a campaign designed to remind David Cameron of his promise to build those 200 000 houses. Those 200 000 homes at a 20% discount for First Time Buyers under 40 which, it is speculated may be partially funded by a lifting of the requirement to build a proportion of affordable housing and infrastructure alongside those. I’m always happy to support Shelter and so will remind the government that we definitely want houses built. However, I must admit to having a couple of reservations about the Tories’ proposal. For example, if new builds don’t have to include some affordable housing, doesn’t the probable drop in availability of those types of houses constitute a clear giving with one hand and taking with the other? Isn’t this helping one subset of the ‘affected by the housing crisis’ group but neglecting many others? And with regard to the potential removal of the infrastructure requirement, have we really reached the point where the be all and end all seems to be the ownership of a house to the extent that we don’t see a need to guarantee sufficient support structures for day-to-day living around it? In summary, aren’t there elements of this which look a little counterproductive and in terms of target group, quality of provision and vision, isn’t this all a bit unambitious?
I recently watched an episode of The Secret History of our Streets (highly recommended) which detailed a nineteenth century housing project which certainly didn’t lack ambition. Now known as Arnold Circus, it seems this Victorian slum area was described by Charles Booth on his 1889 map of London as being particularly deprived and with exceptionally poor living conditions. By 1896 those slums had been replaced by the first council estate. What is striking is the vision behind the building of these 5 storey blocks of flats. The style and materials used wouldn’t have been out of place in Kensington or Chelsea and infrastructure was central. Two schools, shops, a church, a central green area, raised slightly so all residents had a view of it from their windows. This was social architecture to be proud of designed with an underlying ethos which understood the profoundly positive effect good housing could have on lives, irrespective of tenure. I’m no expert but on first sight it seems to have been a beautiful project morally, socially and physically. It’s this attitude we need when building more houses. Places to live and in which to live well. I worry about a proposal that removes the need to add to infrastructure or the pool of affordable housing and instead says it’s all OK because a particular target group will be happy secure in the knowledge they are on their way to ownership and ownership is all.
It’s not all. Everyone, again, irrespective of tenure deserves a home which supports and betters their life. One which doesn’t eat up all their money and that they can feel secure in. One that’s near work and that allows them to access and contribute to their community. After all if the Victorians could do it, why can’t we?
So to David Cameron I would say don’t change your mind about those homes you committed to building but in Victorian/Dickensian spirit, I have to say: ‘Please Sir, I want some more‘ : more housing of different tenures; definitely more good quality social housing with rents that real people can afford; more homes for the nearly 50,000 families now living in temporary accommodation; better conditions for private renters; basically just more vision and acknowledgement of the importance of good housing for our population from you, along with a real commitment to providing it.
Postscript: In the interests of providing a balanced picture, it is worth pointing out though that whilst originally conceived to provide good homes for the 5000 poorest of London, by the time Arnold Circus opened it didn’t actually do that. It was decided that the rents needed to be sufficient to cover costs and so living in the first council housing ended up costing 4 times as much as the rent of probably inadequate but affordable private rooms surrounding this area. As a result, sadly none of those original 5000 slum dwellers lived in the carefully curated Arnold Circus. Lives of some poor were improved but the original beneficiaries belonging to Booth’s lowest social group were priced out.