Communities or Commodities
An argument that I’ve heard a lot over the years is that, since I often earn reasonable money, I should vacate my home and let someone in greater need take up the tenancy. Like the tenancy rule changes the chancellor announced in his July budget, this thinking demonstrates a particular view of social housing.
In his budget Osborne said high earners would no longer be subsidised and so would pay market rates for their homes. Many people applaud this: if there is a shortage of homes then surely the few there are should go to those most in need. Housing will become a means-tested benefit. I have no idea what “market rates” are in my area. The very concept of the market setting rent rates is of course nonsense, since these rates are only sustainable with support from housing benefit payments. Speaking to my neighbours, it seems this will be the final straw. Why pay hyper-inflated rates for a property when, for the same amount, you can live in a much nicer home? Just as with right to buy, there will be a flow of working people out of the estates as only those on benefits will be able to afford to live here.
This is a million miles away from where we were in the 70s, with more than a third of the nation living in council properties. A clean, secure and sensibly priced place to live is a basic right that everyone should enjoy. Labour’s New Towns Act 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 stated that council housing was for the “general needs” of a broad swath of society. The old almshouses were intended for the poor, but the new council houses were not. Aneurin Bevan said the estates would be places where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other”. They were never meant to be havens for the have-nots, but places where all walks of life lived side by side.
I don’t think we’ve even started to seriously consider the idea that housing isn’t a fungible commodity, and that communities are actually important and worth maintaining? There’s a constant emphasis on getting on the property ladder, moving up, and if you’re renting, then sure it’s not an issue to only have a one year lease with no security of tenure. This atomization of society, breaking down neighbourhood links and scattering them to the winds, is not something that should be applauded. Homes are not a commodity, communities are hard to build and easy to destroy.