The Scandal of our Doorsteps

The current focus on the bedroom tax, while well-meaning, has one big problem: it takes away from the greater scandal, which is the gradual and deliberate undermining of social housing in England as a whole. A person affected by the bedroom tax is really lucky. He or she has somewhere to live.

Availability of housing doesn’t affect us up here in the North-East so much, but it’s creeping: average UK house prices have gone over £300,000 for the first time, becoming unaffordable in more areas of the country. (1) When house prices rise, rent prices follow, so that, increasingly, those who can afford to live in some areas are either those who were lucky enough to buy when houses were more affordable, or those who are lucky enough to have earned or inherited a lot of money. This would be unfair, but tolerable, if there were a functional social rented sector; but the current government is doing everything it can to destroy that which exists.

A really good way of decreasing the social housing stock is to flog it. Right to Buy for local authority tenants has been around since 1980, but two significant changes are being, or have been, made. In 2012 the associated maximum discount was increased to £75,000 (£100,000 in London) or 60% of the value of a house, 70% of the value of a flat.  It’s increasing in line with inflation. (2) Then there’s the extension of Right to Buy to housing association properties; it’s currently being piloted on a voluntary basis. (3)

Now, is there necessarily anything wrong with social housing tenants being able to buy their homes? Well, no. In some circumstances it could be a good thing, leading to a more mixed-tenure, stable community than if people wishing to become home-owners always had to move out; and there would be no net decrease in the amount of social housing available if local authorities were able to sell at market rates and if there were land available for them to use the proceeds to build new dwellings.

(I’m a town planner, and we say “dwelling” rather than “home” on the basis, I suppose, that a dwelling is only a home if someone’s living in it. I like the pedantry of this, and the slightly archaic ring of the word. It also avoids the rather nauseating insincerity exhibited by developers and estate agents who refer cosily to “your home” when they really mean “your capital investment, and our whacking big sale”).

That’s not what’s happened in the UK, though. Of course there are plenty of people living quite happily in ex-council dwellings. Good for them. But, since local authorities have had to sell at a discount and have been forbidden to build new ones with the proceeds, the effect has been to reduce the amount of social housing available.

What’s more, many ex-council dwellings  – at least 36% in London (4) – are now let by private landlords. Private landlords can charge higher rents and do not have to adhere to the “Decent Homes Standard” required for social housing. (5) So people are paying more for worse accommodation. That’s individuals, and local authorities paying housing benefit – either way, it’s us. The absence of decent social housing means that private housing, whether for sale or rent, is the only option, and therefore developers and landlords are free to rip people off. Social housing isn’t just a safety net for those unable to enter the private market. If it works, it should be a moderating factor upon it.

The Government’s response to an increasing housing benefit bill has not been to curtail the transfer of dwellings to private landlords. Instead, they have imposed a benefit cap, limiting the amount of money a household can receive from all benefits. In high-value areas where the social housing has been sold, this can mean that there is literally nowhere cheap enough for a person on benefits. (6) (7)

Meanwhile, local authorities are unable to take action against problem tenants – because they don’t own the houses any more. And the Daily Mail and the EDL, or whatever the current most prominent group of racists are, spin the line that the country is “full” and blame the immigrants for the housing shortage, like they do for everything else.

We know all this. It’s been going on for ages. But the consequences are worse now because of the rocketing cost of private housing.

And the Government are working assiduously to exacerbate the situation. First, there’s Help to Buy – a scheme, introduced in 2013,  in which the government subsidises property purchases by first-time buyers, either by topping up an ISA, providing loans for a deposit, or guaranteeing a mortgage. (8) It was suggested at the time that this would have an inflationary effect upon house prices, which have, indeed, risen.

Then there’s the whole package of measures in the Housing and Planning Bill, currently going through Parliament. (9) . First, it contains a requirement for local authorities to sell off higher-value council properties – that’s to fund the discount on the sale of housing association properties. So, in the areas where affordability problems are worst, local authorities will have to sell more of their social housing in order to subsidise the sale of more social housing. Secondly, it contains a requirement for “higher-income” local authority tenants to pay market or near-market rent.

Thirdly, there’s the invention of a new category of dwelling: “starter homes.” Young people can’t get on the housing ladder, say the statistics. No matter! says the government; local authorities are going to make developers build “reasonably-priced” housing for sale, and knock 20% off. How are developers going to pay for this? Well, we don’t know, but it’s likely to mean they pay less in “Section 106” agreements  – the levies that developers normally pay councils to fund socially-necessary things such as schools, parks – and affordable housing. (10)

Can these “high-earning” people who’ve just had a rent hike in social housing buy a Starter Home? No, of course not. “High-earning” is £30K in most of the country. That would get you a mortgage of £142,500. A Starter Home can cost anything up to £250K. You’re not even close. Even with Help to Buy. Even with the 20% discount. The situation’s even worse in London. “High-earning” is £40k (if that sounds like a lot, remember, that’s a couple earning £20K each). They could borrow £190K. A Starter Home can cost up to £450K. (11) If they can’t pay the rent, they’ll just have to move, and probably, in that situation, out of the area altogether. (12)  (13). If they leave a high- value council dwelling, the council will have to sell it. So it won’t benefit anyone else in need.

So. What’s going on here? With all these bloody awful consequences, why on earth is the Government screwing the poorest over so much? Why’s it presiding over the transfer of so much of the nation’s capital and its social goods into the hands of those who are already wealthy?

Well, it’s ideological, of course, a gradual hardening of the attitude that says that we sink or swim in this life, and that society has minimal responsibility towards those who happen not to have been born with, or acquired, a lifebelt. It’s a continuation of the attitude that says, after each Budget, that we should consider, not what this means for “us” but for “me” and that selfishness and the compulsion to accumulate is not only inevitable, but-  since it’s imagined to correlate with Hard Work and Responsibility – in some sense, highly moral.

I’m not, by the way, saying that the housing shortage is entirely to do with housing policy. It’s got to do with the North/ South divide and an excessive focus on London as the centre of commerce and government; the purchase of London property as an investment; a shortage of housing land in existing cities, and the difficulty of intensifying development where land is already built on; and the habit developers have of “banking” land and planning permission; and resistance to new development. I am saying that current governmental policy seems to be almost perversely directed towards exacerbating current problems.

And you know the worst of it? At just the same time as the Chancellor is pontificating about the regrettable necessity for austerity – it’s us that’s paying for all this. We’re paying for Help to Buy. We, or rather, local authorities, are paying to subsidise the sale of housing association properties. We’re paying, through the money that local authorities won’t be getting from Section 106, for the pleasure of those poor dears that can only afford £450K for a Starter Home; and that £450K, of course, ultimately ends up in the coffers of the private housebuilders who have been lobbying all parties for decades. Don’t look for conspiracy theories, folks. Bad crack is happening in plain sight.

by Josephine Ellis, Blue Kayak















The Global Village Green

At some point in the 1980s “global warming” caught the public imagination. It was becoming increasingly hard to ignore that the climate was behaving exactly as it would if the climatologists were correct. At least in some quarters, there was a feeling that this changed everything. Terms like “carbon neutral” and “sustainable development” began to enter the vocabulary. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 and the Rio Earth Summit took place in 1992. In the UK, major road schemes met with furious protests. The future, it seemed, was going to be a green one.

But that didn’t happen. Over the intervening years, if anything, people stopped caring quite as much. Budget airlines began to operate, and, now that it was possible for us to go on Easyjet weekends abroad, we did so – even as the temperatures in the UK rose to perfectly respectable basking levels. As floods submerged one part of the country after another, people blamed the Environment Agency, and said that more dredging would sort the problem out. In a recent Ipsos/ Mori poll on “the most important issues facing Britain” the environment didn’t even make the top ten. And where the public don’t care about something, politicians don’t need to do anything about it in order to curry favour. It may even be bad for them.

What has happened here? How did we stop caring?

There are several aspects to it, of course. I think they can be discussed under the headings of denial, custom and distance.

Some people are simply in denial, of course, accepting the message given to them by various vested interests that it’s “just a theory”. Of course, they are fools, but they are philosophical first cousins of those who say “Everything happens for a reason” and “There’s no such word as ‘can’t'”. That is, believing untrue but comforting things is actually quite psychologically healthy.

Another thing which is psychologically healthy is the way we become accustomed to a threat or to a change – the way we learn to live with it. For we all must deal with the fact that there is peril in the world, that we and all those we love are threatened,and must eventually die. If we were to take on board all the angst in the world, we would hardly be able to function. And, notwithstanding the enormity of climate change, the fact that it happens gradually means that we have been able not to notice.

A significant factor for the UK is that the effects here have not been very painful. Most of us have not been flooded and drought has not decimated our harvests. The visible signs, if we observe them, are actually quite welcome on a day-to-day level – warmer summer days, earlier signs of spring, no need to buy a winter coat. Some of us might be aware that the supply of food in certain parts of the world is likely to become less secure as a result of droughts and floods, or that some cities are likely to be inundated by rising seas, but we discount this because, first, we imagine that it hasn’t happened yet, and secondly, because it isn’t happening here.

And if something doesn’t affect us greatly, we are less likely to care. The term “Nimby” (not-in-my-back-yard) refers to those who object to any form of development taking place where they can see it, even when they accept that it needs to be built somewhere. In its extreme forms this can manifest itself as quite astonishing hypocrisy – such as, when a person buys a new house on the outskirts of a village, and then ten years later is outraged at a proposal to build on the field next door.

However, disdain for Nimbies per se is, I think, misguided. We naturally care more about our own immediate surroundings. I would suggest that a sense of territory is innate. We know that because it’s common to so much of the animal kingdom, and because we are animals, too, we understand it. We recognise that a territory may belong to an individual – a solitary hunter like a cat or owl – or may be held collectively by the members of a tribe, herd or pack. We recognise that it is not the same as legal ownership: the graffito “.. ov Benwell” on a wall doesn’t mean that the writer thinks he could actually sell the whole area. Our sense of territory can lead to dreadful consequences in terms of turf wars and selfishness, but where we are is part of who we are; it contributes towards our sense of self. So, although someone living next door to a proposed new block of flats, say, may well be objecting purely because he would see it, to tell him that his objection is therefore invalid would be profoundly disempowering.

“Think Global – Act Local”, environmental groups say. It’s part of the theory of sustainable development – that is, that we should aim towards development which is good for the economy, society and the environment. But there is actually an uneasy tension between what people want for themselves  – locally  or otherwise – and what would be best for the environment. Local environmental groups can and do support and maintain community gardens, parks and wildlife sites, or campaign for the protection of valued landscapes. But they don’t always. On the level of society as a whole, people are unlikely to be united in favour of measures that entail costs as well as benefits. A recent article argued that opposition to airport expansion was motivated not by environmental concern but by snobbery – a distaste for seeing the masses fly to Malaga. I disagree, of course, but the fact that the viewpoint exists shows that there is no necessary correlation between “society” and “environment”.

So, if people don’t really care about climate change because it doesn’t seem to be having a negative effect on their back yard, what can be done to make them care?

I think the answer lies in an analogy with the way we view other people.

In David Eagleman’s fascinating TV series, “The Brain”, he describes an experiment in which people watched footage of a human hand being pierced with a needle. They showed less stress when they were told that the hand in question belonged to a person of their own existential world-view. So an atheist would display less stress when told that the hand belonged to a Muslim (say) or vice versa. It applied consistently, so it wasn’t a matter of one culture breeding a more or less callous attitude.

Again, the desire to form tribes and to care more about those within our own group seems to be innate. This can be very positive (as when members of a family or team must collaborate to succeed) or negative (when people beat up immigrants or do not care about the killing of foreign civilians). But our tribe is mutable – it extends or contracts depending on who we know about, and our sense of closeness to them. Perhaps, before the Industrial Revolution, most people’s circles were largely made up of those to whom they were actually related by birth or marriage. When Richard Gough wrote the history of his village, Myddle, in 1700, he was able to write at length about the family history of everyone there -arranged by where they sat in the church. His tribe was closely-knit, intimately-acquainted, and probably cared relatively little about anyone in the outside world.

I’d argue that the modern sense of tribe is more sophisticated. We may not have as closely-knit and self-sufficient societies as Gough’s, but we are able to establish different levels of concern for people at different levels of closeness, and to change our concept of significance depending on the messages we receive. Refugee children were dying in the Mediterranean long before the body of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi was photographed face down, as toddlers sleep, on a beach; but the image changed the way his kind were seen. For a while, our tribe, the group of people we care about, extended to include Syrian refugee children.

If we can do this for tribe, can we do this for territory? Can we extend our sense of the area that matters to cover not just that which is visible to us but everyone else’s back yard, too? And if so, how’s that to be done?

I’m not sure, but I think it’s got to have to do with the way in which environmental stories are reported and received. It is difficult, in the news, because climate change is a process, not an event. So, by and large, we hear about what is predicted, in general terms, when an IPCC report comes out, but we don’t hear about what occurs, in specific terms – unless a drought, flood or storm occurs, in which case it is less likely to be possible to pin it absolutely on climate change, because other factors always apply.

So let’s hear more about place and what climate change will do to it. When a flood or drought occurs, let’s hear more about the nature of the backyard that has been affected. When an IPCC report comes out, let its predictions be reported with reference to the kind of places that will be inundated. And let’s hear more about how places and climate are changing gradually, rather than climate change hitting the news only when a particularly significant event happens.

We are powerful now: we have the tools to destroy people on the other side of the world through nothing more malevolent than blase disregard. But we also have the power to learn to care about place and people, and only when we believe that something matters will we make much of an effort to protect it.