The latest planning bill of 2015-16 currently proceeding through the House of Lords contains some of the most controversial housing policies since Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 Right to Buy act. The current bill questions the relationship of state-provided housing within society.
To surmise its contents, the bill proposes three key actions with the aim of obliterating the very nature of the welfare state housing provision. The first major aim of the housing bill is to phase out secure tenancies for council residents, thus placing council residents in a perpetual state of limbo.
The second major aim is to permit local authorities to sell their ‘vacant high value’ housing stock, putting city centre council housing at risk, a principle that has been dubbed as ‘social cleansing’ by critics.
The third major aim of the bill is to introduce mandatory rents for ‘high income’ social housing tenants. Branded ‘pay to stay’ it is defined as £30,000 per year outside of London and £40,000 within London. Therefore, if the tenant cannot afford to exercise their Right to Buy, but their combined income is defined as high, they will be forced to leave their property if they cannot afford the new rent. Thus, ‘vacant’ housing stock can be sold off and put into the private sphere. If the housing bill is passed, it will be a polemic move in dismantling the welfare state.
The Conservative government’s defence of the bill is that it will provide affordable starter homes for first time buyers, but at what cost? By pricing those on lower income out of the city centre where there is access to jobs, facilities, and culture, there is a risk that it will signal the creation of neo-slums in the outskirts of cities. This could create satellite areas around cities where unregulated sub-standard housing stock is rented to those where it is their only option.
I have personal experience of the corrosive problems of the current social housing crisis. For most of 2015 I was working as an architectural assistant in Hackney, London. My rent for a small double room in the Bancroft Estate Bethnal Green in Tower Hamlets was £650 per month, which, appalling as it may seem, was the postcode median. According to the government’s London rent map the average is £600 for a room, with no definitions made for size.
This statistic is made even more heinous when you consider my room was an ex-council property in Tower Hamlets: a borough that in 2013 had the highest amount of children in poverty in the UK according to the London Poverty Profile. This illustrates that inner-city subsidised council housing is clearly needed. The ex-council flat in the estate that I lived in was rented out for £2700 per month in total, a startlingly average rate for a desperately impoverished borough.
It was not just in my living situation that I experienced the politics of council housing; it was also in my job. I was involved in the rebuilding of a housing scheme in Hackney, where returning council residents were to be offered flats in the new scheme, which was of mixed tenure. This re-establishment of the community is an ideal that the Conservative government are trying their best to phase out in favour of the mass dispersal of established communities.
London may be a polarised example to use against the housing bill, however it can often be used as a microcosm for the rest of the UK. Where London leads the other major cities follow. The current government might want to end social housing and its legacy as part of the welfare state, but in doing so it heralds the dawn of a new, uglier housing crisis.
Image: Joe D