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Britain’s housing crisis: profit over people in high relief

It is painful to observe that neither party intends to end the hellscape of astronomical house prices, rip-off rents and homelessness when the post-war housing programme has all the answers we need, writes NICK WRIGHT

IN the Westminster world of cross-play politics, Keir Starmer’s embrace of the corporate land bankers and construction firms is garlanded with a pledge to “back the builders, not the blockers.”

On the other side of the gangway Rishi Sunak — no less a corporate crony of big business and the banks — is a new-born partisan of the pastoral.

Responding to the wave of nimbyism that has sprung up wherever the construction monopolies take advantage of his government’s planning and housebuilding regime, the Prime Minister aims to shore up the Tory vote with a pledge to protect the green belt and slacken the housebuilding targets his government has imposed on local councils.

Starmer aims to tap into a powerful sense, especially among young people, that the housing market is skewed against them. Implicit in his presentation of the issue as one of “nimbyism by the already entitled,” is a hint that Labour would give the green light to building on the green belt.

Just last week, Labour modified its earlier proposal to override planning regulations and came up with a new set of “golden rules” for councils that will be required to build on “brownfield sites” and introduced the new idea of so-called “grey zones” for development.

In response, the latest Tory Party chairman Richard Holden (who he?) said: “Only Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives will respect local communities building the right homes in the right places which has delivered one million homes over this parliament and sticking to the plan to reduce inflation and get mortgage rates down to help first-time buyers.”

While this is a hypocritical defence of the existing anarchy of the market and a nod in the direction of local campaigns to stop housing developments, it also obscures the impact of the interest rate rises that underpin the latest Tory austerity offensive and which make homeownership even more costly for the cashless who need a loan.

Labour cannot mount much of an assault on the Tory position because, in essence, its pre-election economic pledges are to maintain the Tory spending plans and thus limit the public-sector investment in housing.

This is one explanation for the tendency on the part of both these “parties of capitalist continuity” to square off in cost-free “culture wars” rather than fight on substantive economic issues.

But, such posturing aside, the policies advanced by the Westminster parties fail to tackle the basic problem of a desperate shortage of affordable housing for working people that can only be solved by a massive housebuilding programme that would replicate the post-war council housing boom.

In the two post-war decades, housing construction reached above 400,000 units per year, with the private-sector contribution never getting beyond 150,000 to 200,000 units. Later, and following the 2008 financial crisis, even this figure declined rapidly.

It is important to remember that, even though the country was deeply indebted to the US for war loans, the post-war housebuilding programme was a bipartisan policy, while the “green belt” legislation was a reaction to the pre-war unplanned and market-driven ribbon development into the countryside.

Under the post-war Labour government, a million houses were built — and over 85 per cent were council houses. And even the 1951 Tory government continued at pace. Five million council houses were built between 1946 and 1981 and only a quarter of a million since then.

Of course, today’s cash-strapped councils cannot easily afford the costs of construction and planning authorities are compelled to deal with carefully crafted planning proposals to build on land adjacent to existing settlements by construction firms anxious only to maximise profits.

Hence the proliferation of so-called “executive” homes, widely varying in their internal dimensions and aesthetic appeal and almost always priced at a level unaffordable to most working people and impossible for those who most need housing.

The issue is raised sharply where I live in the Kentish market town of Faversham, which is typical of places where developers are dazzled by the prospects of easy sales to people cashing up in the overheated London property market.

Under the rather offensive slogan “Say No to mass housing,” a strong strain of nimbyism is married to all kinds of legitimate concerns about low-quality developments, a lack of infrastructure and services, overcrowded doctors’ surgeries and schools and so on. But dig down below the surface rhetoric and all kinds of hypocrisies and special pleading emerges.

One campaign group gives voice to anger over a plan by the Duchy of Cornwall for 2,500 homes on 320 acres of “prize farmland” which it claims will “swallow up historic villages into an urban mass.”

Writing in the local campaign journal the Faversham Eye, Brian Pain makes the compelling point that “the government uses a crude algorithm called the Standard Housing Method to determine how many new housing units they demand each authority must provide for in each planning time period but do not specify what kind of house.

“Inevitably, therefore, developers choose to favour the cheapest and most profitable sites (greenfield in the most desirable areas) and the larger type of houses to maximise profits.”

This method results in the wrong homes of the wrong tenure being built in the wrong places, ensuring that housing development continues to spectacularly fail to meet both housing need and demand, and to erase local planning priorities from the equation, in favour of developer-led profits.

Balancing the competing arguments brings out all kinds of contradictions. The King’s Trust development is compared favourably with other developments and this includes infrastructure alongside its rather elevated design standards even if these are not to everyone’s taste.

But there are big concerns about the traffic loading that inevitably will accompany developments alongside the A2 and the M2 junction. There already exists new housing around the lakes that fill the town’s abandoned brickfields and on each side of the original market town footprint.

It is hard to determine what issues are broadly legitimate and those which are purely expedient. One campaign rails against the use of “valuable agricultural land” and another opposes a development because it is on former industrial land which is apparently contaminated. Any argument will do.

It is clear that without strong democratic local accountability within a national framework which prioritises housing for social need over speculative profit, the capitalist market will trample over the concerns, legitimate or otherwise, of local campaign groups.

Where campaigns are driven by fears about the impact on property prices these need to be measured against the necessity for balanced development that retains local character and meets the real housing needs of hundreds of local families who are overcrowded, in unsuitable accommodation or at the mercy of a rapacious local rental market.

But the entitled need to ask themselves how it is that their existing houses — which in Faversham were necessarily built on “valuable” agricultural land — should be invested with a value that they would deny others.

Untangling the practical and moral questions at play here means tackling our sense of “the housing market” as an autonomous, sentient, discrete entity. This tips us into a social setting in which buyers encounter sellers nominally as equals but in reality, as personally embedded in a particular social class that stands in relation to others.

Overcoming the contradictions between the housed and the homeless, between conservation and development and between profit and social need, is the question of power and ownership in a class-divided society. Against human need, which, especially with housing, is real and measurable, the capitalist market is indifferent.

A long-term solution must entail public ownership of the land stopping the sale of public land to the private sector, the green rehabilitation of the existing housing stock, incentives to occupy empty homes, a massive council housing programme, alongside rent controls, stronger tenants’ rights and mutual obligations on both landlords and renters. There is no stronger moral and economic case for public ownership than that for taking profit out of the construction industry.

It is a compelling case for working-class political power and a socialist state.

With thanks to Lorraine Douglas.

Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.

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