NOTHING defines better the parasitic nature of capitalism than the rentier aspects of our economy in which a select few live — without the necessity of working — on the rent paid by the many.
What makes this exploitative situation even more distasteful is that a substantial slice of rented housing is former council housing which has now been concentrated, as is the natural tendency under capitalism, in ever fewer hands.
Forty per cent of council homes flogged off under Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy now are owned by private landlords, with their tenants having to fork out at more than twice the rent levels formerly charged by councils.
Milton Keynes, where most housing was built with public money, is now the “right-to-buy-to-let capital” of England with more than seven out of 10 houses privately rented.
Within a generation or two Thatcher’s mendacious promise of a property-owning democracy is turned on its head with millions of working people subject to the normal functioning of a housing market in which rent levels are market-driven to realise the highest possible levels of profit.
The great virtue of council housing was that once the capital costs of building were met the subsequent rent income could be used to build more houses, some of which could become available to the children of the original tenants.
But with privately owned housing that is rented out, this rent income is accumulated in fewer and fewer private hands, often to be invested where profits are best guaranteed.
Where the rented housing market is poorly regulated — and Britain falls squarely in this category as compared to, for example, Germany — it is inevitable, as Generation Rent has revealed, that tenants are poorly protected. Only one in 20 tenants who complained about poor standards or lack of repairs are given the limited protection from eviction. Even then, the protection after a local authority has served an improvement notice on a landlord lasts only for six months.
It can take that long to find a place to rent and it is even harder if the relations with the landlord end up in a hostile stand-off and eviction.
The malign genius of Margaret Thatcher was to offer — at a discount — to existing tenants the sale of the house in which they and their family lived. Tenants exist, like everybody else in capitalist Britain, in an exploitative world in which the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. It is not surprising that many people, fully aware of the precarious nature of their work, conscious of their status as men and women on little or no property and with an eye to their future and the future of their children took the opportunity to accumulate a small portion of property.
This act presents itself as rational only in a society in which the sanctity of the private ownership of property is the highest principle. But the cumulative effect of this Thatcherite strategy of social engineering was to marketise a sector which should be directed at providing the basic human right of access to decent housing.
Labour’s latest proposal, presented by shadow housing secretary John Healey, aims to provide more security to tenants in the private rented sector. “People shouldn’t be living in fear of losing their homes,” he said.
A good start. As with so many concerns ownership is the key issue. Britain needs to build hundreds of thousands of new houses every year. This will be best done with a Bill of tenants’ rights, a national plan and more money.
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