Britain’s acute housing crisis has been allowed to get ever worse, in part because the wrong targets are persistently scapegoated for it. Migrants are a long-running target, of course; those deemed to be undeserving benefit claimants, such as teenagers mothers, are another traditional favourite. On one level, there is a perversely ingenious strategy at play. The more the government shrinks the nation’s council housing stock as a deliberate policy, the more those languishing on waiting lists feel as though they are competing for scarce resources, and the more they are incentivised to delegitimise other “competitors” as undeserving. The government is let off the hook.
Which brings me to the case of Labour backbencher Kate Osamor, who spent Christmas enduring a media storm because she declared that she was “proud, not ashamed” to be a council tenant. This is a disgrace, apparently, because someone on a parliamentarian’s salary should free up their house for the more deserving. This line of argument is not only wrongheaded, it goes some way to explaining why a housing crisis has enveloped Britain.
Hounding Osamor only lets the government off the hook for a housing crisis created in Number 10
First things first: the architects of the nation’s housing crisis sit in No 10. Housebuilding is at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s, and the failure to replace council housing flogged off under right to buy leaves 1.15 million families trapped on waiting lists. Rather than the “property-owning democracy” promised by Margaret Thatcher, home ownership has declined to 1980s levels, and is in a state of collapse among younger Britons. Four in 10 of the properties sold off under right to buy are now owned by private landlords charging twice as much as local authorities did. With fewer council houses available to rent, and a derisory number built under Tory rule, those who once would have been council tenants have been driven into an insecure, expensive private rental sector which has doubled in size over the past 25 years. The failure to build council housing means the taxpayer instead spends over £9bn a year subsidising private landlords charging rents people cannot afford.
Some might argue that while all the above is true, if affluent social tenants like Osamor vacated their properties, that would surely ameliorate the housing crisis. Taking this argument on its own terms: no it would not. Government research in 2014 suggested that there were between 3,000 and 8,000 social households whose residents earned more than £80,000 a year: bear in mind that there are more than 4 million remaining social houses in England and Wales. Evicting affluent social tenants from their homes wouldn’t even amount to a pinprick on the housing crisis.
But the logic of this argument is all wrong in any case. Nye Bevan’s ambitious postwar council house building programme rejected the idea that council housing should only be provided for those deemed to be “working class”. As he put it: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of a citizen … to see the living tapestry for a mixed community.”
The assault on council housing has attempted to unpick this honourable dream. Instead, the diminishing stock is prioritised for those most in need. There are still council tenants from varied backgrounds: nurses, supermarket workers, care workers. But the residents of what remains of council housing disproportionately tend either to be elderly – often longstanding tenants who did not use “right to buy” – or those in the most difficult circumstances. It creates ghettos for the poor, rather than socially diverse communities.
This approach leads to the stigmatisation of social housing: their tenants are frequently demonised (one proffered “backronym” for “chavs” is “council housed and violent”), and younger people are encouraged to shun council housing in favour of a homeowning dream that becomes ever more distant. The destruction of the universalist principle behind public services – that everyone pays in and everyone gets something back – hurts the poorest the most. As the British social researcher Richard Titmuss put it, “services for the poor end up being poor services”.
Osamor may have a large majority, but being an MP is hardly stable employment, and she got a council house when she was a homeless single parent. Are we saying that once those in the most adverse circumstances achieve a more comfortable standard of living, they are to be evicted from their family home? What the victimisation of Osamor underlines is the desperate need to reimagine council housing as an option for all.
Bevan believed that council housing should be of a better standard than private housing. Today, that means everything from bigger living spaces – the British home is shrinking – to proper insulation to take on fuel poverty and combat climate change. If Osamor wanted to restrict council housing, then she would rightly be condemned as a hypocrite: but she doesn’t, she advocates a mass council housebuilding programme. That doesn’t mean Labour’s current plans are ambitious enough – they’re not. The Scottish and Welsh governments have suspended right to buy, given the mass depletion of council housing stock: Labour should demand the same in England. Labour should be pushed to commit to a higher proportion of council housing in its “million homes” commitment, too.
We are supposed to live in a representative democracy, and parliament should look like the nation it serves. Accordingly, we should bemoan the fact that there are too few MPs who are social tenants, not that there are too many. Increasing the number would mean that the rights and needs of social tenants would be more likely to be championed, and that council housing would be forced higher up the political agenda. It would also mean that MPs were closer to the communities they represent.
Osamor has temporarily displaced Diane Abbott as the black female politician the British media love to kick. But all those hounding her are achieving is letting the government off the hook for a housing crisis created in No 10.