THE FIRST DUTY

The Housing Times Issue 1

The Conservative Government has declared

DECLARED_WAR.svg

on Social Housing

Newspapers, journalists like to think, are the first draft of history, so when historians in years to come examine the property supplements published by newspapers they will be puzzled. The London Evening Standard each Wednesday has a property section which is as thick as the rest of the paper. The homes advertised are usually at the top end of the market and beyond the pockets of the millions of Londoners who read the paper as they make their way home from work to their humble abode. For millions of Londoners owning their own home has become increasingly harder largely because the numbers of homes built over the past three decades has decreased making the homes advertised in the property supplements beyond their means.

Times and attitudes towards housing have changed since John Ruskin, the Victorian social reformer and art critic, wrote that the first duty of a State was to see that every child born therein should be well housed. (This was at a time when Great Britain had no enemies and the ‘condition’ of the country was a source of concern for virtuous Victorians) Nowadays the State’s involvement in housing has become as tenuous as it was in Victorian times. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, in giving evidence to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee in October 2015, said, “The actual direct investment by Government in housing associations is now very small. It is about £1 billion a year. It sounds like a lot of money but, in the big scheme of things, it is a very small amount.” The 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review saw the end of direct funding of social housing. Capital investment for housing was cut by two thirds. For Inside Housing magazine the decisions heralded the slow death of the tenure. (It is rather ironic that a few weeks after I sent the layout for the front cover stating the government had declared war on social housing to the printers that Inside Housing magazine published a letter which came to the conclusion that the government’s objective as regards social housing is to complete its demise)

Since 2010 some of the diseases that were associated with Victorian times caused by malnutrition have risen. Cases of malnutrition and other ‘Victorian’ diseases have risen in England in what is seen a consequence of cuts to social services and rising food poverty. NHS figures show that 7,366 people were admitted to hospital with a primary or secondary diagnosis of malnutrition between August 2014 and July 2015, compared with 4,883 cases in the same period from 2010 to 2011 – a rise of more than 50 per cent in just four years. Cases of other diseases prevalent in the Victorian era include scurvy, scarlet fever; cholera and whooping cough have increased since 2010. It is hardly surprising considering the rise in number of people living in overcrowding housing conditions

If, as it is said, history is written by the winners, the history of the last thirty-five years has been the story of the rich getting richer and the poorer getting poorer. That is certainly true as regards housing for people either owning their own home or who bought the home they rented from the council. Rising house prices have been a stable headline on newspaper front pages. Ever rising house prices were seen as good news. Times have changed again and now the reverse is true as it means more children – grown adults – living with their parents as they cannot afford the deposit for a place of their own or having to borrow from the Bank of Mum and Dad.

It was this situation that led two young journalists to write a book – the Jilted Generation – to try and understand for their own sake as much as for any other reason how they were going to face the future without the legacies that their parents had inherited from earlier generations. They concluded that the most important legacy that their parents inherited was the availability of housing to buy or rent. Besides the economic cost of housing that their generation is suffering they mention it is often the unexamined social costs that exact the highest price. Housing is, they write, “society’s fundamental building block. It’s completely defining. Housing is not just a traded commodity, not a mere space in which people reside, but a focal point for the narrative of their lives, providing shelter, security, a bedrock of certainly in an uncertain world” For their generation that is not the case. They blame what passed for housing policy over the last thirty five years.

In Anna Minton’s book Ground Control there is a chapter called Housing: the untold story. It is the story of how the legacy of social housing came under attack from housing policy over the past thirty five years. It is the story of the right to buy Act, stock transfer, the Pathfinder scheme to demolish structurally sound homes in the north of England and, if Andrew Adonis has his way, of demolishing all council estates in London to create bijou City Villages in the name of regeneration.

Malcolm Dean, formerly social affairs editor at The Guardian, in his book Democracy under Attack echoes the sentiments expressed by Anna Minton in his chapter on the disappearance of the housing correspondent. He writes “Social housing dropped out of sight despite the millions living there and the huge changes taking place. A whole host of stories were being ignored: the rise of housing associations and the fall of council housing; the stock transfers from councils to housing associations which the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported were bad for taxpayers; and the emergence of a virulent anti-housing lobby led by the Campaign to Protect Rural England” It is the story of all the people who have struggled to be heard and housed. It will be the first duty of this publication to tell such stories.

Terry McGrenera

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