If you haven’t managed to I strongly recommend taking a look at a couple of documentaries by Adam Curtis. The first provides the name for this blog, The Power of Nightmares, the second is Bitter Lake. Both focus on the power of meta-narratives that seek to explain the world we live in. Both highlight the often unintended consequences of doing so. Particularly in Bitter Lake which links the over-simplification of worldviews to the spiralling violence in the Middle East.
Whilst a Neighbourhood Office can be pretty frenetic at times I would balk at comparing it to the various swathes of carnage ripping up parts of the world far away from our shores. However the central messages from Mr Curtis and his dark, compelling and surreal documentaries ring true for social housing. For years politicians have used highly negative narratives when looking at the welfare state and social housing. Providing a justification for dismantling one of the central support systems for the general public. Where once was assistance is now dependency, where once was a council house now stands a privately owned building sold for a lot more than it was lost for. Benefit claimants are shirkers, not people. So the story goes.
Within the pervading political explanations of the modern world is a set of basic assumptions. And as with Bitter Lake these assumptions, which in turn have driven policy, have led to unintended outcomes. The emergence of Neo-liberalism from pariah to main stay of both political thought and economic policy brought about a seismic shift in housing tenure. Home ownership has come to dominate the UK Housing market. With this domination a set of ideals, of pre-scripts, have become buried within our nation’s psyche.
Table Numero Uno – Trends in tenure, 1980 to 2013-14
We are one of only a few countries in Europe where a property is seen as a money-making endeavour above other beneficial factors of home ownership. Where buy-to-let small-scale landlords have been positively encouraged. Programmes like Homes Under The Hammer or Location, Location, Location typify our approach to housing. We believe house prices will always increase for short-term profit. Yet somehow housing will remain affordable for our children. This is a lie and a dangerous one.
At the same time we have been fed a myth that living standards will always improve. That consumerism is a good thing. That the wheels of the economy will keep on turning and benefit us all. The fact that our current recovery is based on, and now threatened by, ever-increasing individual debt as credit replaces cash savings is ignored. Roll the dice baby, papa needs a new pair of shoes.
The latest Conservative Party policy announcement beautifully illustrates the point. A scheme that provides cheaper home ownership, via public subsidy, at the possible expense of actual affordable (social) housing for the most in need is only possible where the pervading narrative is utterly warped from the reality it seeks to explain. It is about housing, stupid. The utter lack of it. The continued loss of social housing via right to buy. The inability for those of my cohort to even begin to countenance the prospect of buying due to the inherent costs. Some half-baked initiative to help schmucks like me is akin to pissing in the fucking wind when the mess that is our housing system is seen in its entirety.
As Colin Wiles has noted yet another demand side initiative is not the answer here. More needs to be done on the supply side. And with the Private sector so utterly unable to meet pent-up demand approaches like Starter Homes and Help to Buy miss the point. But given the worldview in which they have been formed, where the state cannot provide the solution, it is perhaps hardly surprising. What we need is a Government that will reverse the drop in social housing and invest in housing and infrastructure, properly. Alas I do not see this coming from the boys in blue.
Graph Numero Due – Households aged 25-34, by tenure, 2003-04 to 2013-14
Of small comfort is that housing is now seemingly on the agenda for politicians. However looking more closely at the policy announcements there is still reason enough to be glum. In a week where The Green Party fluffed its lines, where Labour promised 200,000 new homes built a year by 2020. The Tories for their part have stated they are on course to do this by 2017. The focus is overwhelmingly on home ownership. Social housing is merely an aside. Indeed the Conservative Party has been so consistent in conflating social housing with its wider affordable housing provision aims I think they see schemes like Help to Buy, in their eyes at least, as an acceptable form of social housing (see equation below).
Social Rent = Affordable Rent
Affordable Rent = Affordable Housing
Affordable Housing = Cheap home ownership.
Providing cheap home ownership = Providing social housing(ish)
The policy announcements of this week are a start but they are nowhere near enough. Nice sound bites and vague promises around how much housing will be built. Or in the case of Brandon Lewis an absence of targets (guess you can’t miss them if you don’t have them…). Are all well and good but the lack of a coherent approach to housing policy has left this country in a very large pickle. Just got to hope we will eventually wake up.