The Observer today reports on the end of what was in many ways the most emblematic feature of the Thatcherite programme – home ownership. We know that the Tory decision to sell off huge quantities of public housing in the UK was driven by both ideological and more nakedly party political considerations. Displaying an awareness of the truth of Marx’s theory that it is social existence that determines human consciousness, the Tories aimed to change the consciousness and political inclinations of large sections of the working class by allowing them to buy their homes cheaply. In the words of Norman Tebbitt, they aimed to make them possessors of capital, and thus, to turn them literally into capitalists. This, along with the deliberate de-industrialisation of the country, was part of a plan to destroy the social conditions that had bred the assertive labour movement of the 1970s, and to hand over the keys of the kingdom to finance capital. At a party-political level, as seen most nakedly in Westminster, it was expected that the new homeowners would vote Tory. The consequences of course were deepening inequality and division, and the devastation of the former mining and industrial areas that were left behind. The transfer of property was reliant upon cheap credit. At the same time, the orgy of speculation and spiralling property prices that resulted has now reached the stage where although the cult of home ownership has become firmly embedded in British social and political culture, it is becoming an unreachable dream for growing numbers. As could only ever happen, it has created a new contradiction in economy and society, especially now credit has dried up as a result of the current crisis. A new generation faces a lifetime of renting in a culture that valorises home ownership.
The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) warns today that the “golden age of home ownership” is coming to an end. In the most expensive parts of the country, lenders are demanding deposits of £40,000 for even the cheapest properties – requiring a level of savings that most renters could only dream of.
The British rental sector, the Observer reports, is in crisis, and demands are growing that the government take action to address the needs of the 3m households in the private rented sector.
Campaigners and experts point to government figures that show 44% of all privately rented homes are classified as “non-decent” – a far higher level than for owner-occupied houses (32%) and social rented homes (26). They also highlight the plight of the “in-betweens” – low-paid workers unlikely to be offered council housing but with little chance of buying a home.
There are other problems as well, with short-term leases with one or two month notice periods creating insecurity, especially for families with children. In the social housing sector, things look like getting worse under the Con-Dem coalition. Along with changes to housing benefit that put up to three quarter of a million people at risk of becoming homeless, Cameron recently announced that he planned to end social housing tenancies for life, and that council tenants would have to move on if their circumstances changed. This is what the big society means. Forcibly removing publicly-provided resources and facilities in order to allow profiteering in a private sector that is incapable of providing what is needed, as the figures for non-decent housing in the private rented sector show.
Not surprisingly, there is a generation gap here.
Estate agency Savills has identified 1976 as a key year dividing the property haves and the have-nots. For those born before that year, there have been far more chances to get on to the housing ladder and profit from it. For the younger generation, it is a different story. Many have not made it on to the ladder, and many of those who succeeded bought at the peak of the market and risk being plunged into negative equity.
So what might be the answer?
Sarah Webb, chief executive of the CIH, says the time has come to move away from the notion of “right to buy” and “wrong to rent” and to focus on how to make renting a positive choice. In essence, campaigners want to see a cultural shift on a par with the one Thatcher began in 1980, this time in favour of promoting renting
It seems sensible that there is going to have to be a change in culture, in which renting becomes more normalised. Not only because of the problem of affordability, but also because of the environmental sustainability issues surrounding ever-increasing numbers of houses being built. Those who have bought in flood plains and who are getting flooded every couple of years would probably agree, but there are also issues surrounding demands on the sewage system, transport links etc. An integrated approach to housing and urban planning is definitely needed, in which the issue of renting is part of a broader plan. Of prime importance must be the provision of social housing built by the state. The property speculators and the private sector have made more than enough out of the public sector, and out of the public. We have seen the damage that has been wrought economically and environmentally by handing over control to the market. If the government takes responsibility for providing affordable quality social housing, then we will have gone some way to solving the problems caused by the collapse of the Thatcherite dream. And at an ideological level, with the state demonstrating its power to transform the lives of citizens for the better, we may have gone some way to reversing the damage done to social consciousness as well.