On 20 April Shelter’s campaign, Homes For London (HfL), claimed a huge victory. With Boris Johnson’s endorsement that day, all four of the major mayoral candidates had pledged their unwavering support to the movement. So housing looks as though it may have forced its way back up to its rightful place at the forefront of the political discourse. But the discourse remains stuck in statistical analysis.
HfL itself stands behind a rallying cry for 33,400 additional homes per year. Yet we have been here before. The mass construction of social housing between 1900 and 1980 has now been stigmatised with perceptions of sanitation and crime. With recent amendments in planning legislation, another boom in housing construction could well lead to residential areas set adrift in the outskirts and satellite towns of Greater London. These areas would become tainted even faster than their Twentieth century counterparts in the same mould as the Parisian banlieues. London needs housing, but it needs responsible housing. Before re-approaching this vital issue, it is surely time to examine how we have gone so badly wrong.
Throughout history, one of the greatest challenges that legislators and governments faced has been the problem of vagabondage. Social tensions have always existed between nomadic groups and established settlers. Issues of social contribution, fear, control and anonymity are at the centre of these tensions. From the state’s point of view it is an issue of efficiency. To have a section of society living off the land while contributing nothing back to it is inefficient.
At present we have a culture within social housing of institutionalised vagabondage. Short-hold tenancy agreements erode any sense of belonging. As a result we have a generation of council tenants who have no home and have no chance to give back to a community. In Becontree, Essex, one of the earliest examples of state-funded social housing, there was a promise of life-long residence. Your children would have first rights to the property after you died. The council may have owned these buildings but, make no mistake, they belonged to the tenant. There can be no belonging without permanence. Short-term council tenancy agreements must go if we ever hope to re-establish a sense of community within social-rented property.
In the mid-70s there was a paradigm shift in social housing under a Labour government who, in their defence, were attempting to stem a homelessness crisis. Social housing became an emergency service. Priority housing was not given to families on the housing waiting list, but rather to homeless people who needed accommodation urgently. These housing projects ceased to be long-term homes and became short-term solutions. ‘Right-to-buy’ consolidated the problem when social tenants bought one day and sold the next, resulting in entire blocks ending up in the hands of irresponsible private landlords unbound by the same standards as the housing associations.
Once-coherent and well-managed housing blocks became split between housing association, council and private ownership, not only fracturing the societies within them but also making them impractical to manage and maintain. Many of these buildings now face demolition, despite being structurally sound, with many erected as late as the mid-1970s. They will be replaced by developments that offer fewer affordable homes and fewer family-sized units, all for the sake of modernity.
Problems within our social and private rented sectors will continue to emerge as long as the carousel keeps spinning. With a housing waiting list of 3,343,000 in Greater London, there will be mounting pressure on our future Mayor and those chosen to operate HfL to mass-build before thinking. The 74,553 vacant units across the 32 London Boroughs, many awaiting demolition, should serve as a reminder as to the discredit such action would be to London and all those in desperate need of a secure and permanent home.
Image by llamnudds courtesy of Flickr