Since Mrs Thatcher set out on her crusade to increase home ownership in Britain the percentage of the population who own their own home has fallen to its lowest level for 29 years. The young have been hit particularly hard by changes in the housing market. ONS housing survey data shows that 67% of those aged 25-34 were homeowners in 1991, by 2014 the figure had dropped to just 36%. Meanwhile the number of social homes has fallen by approximately 26%. The combination of all these factors has precipitated the housing crisis that the nation faces today. The showcase of the failed Thatcherite experiment with neoliberalism is the unprecedented levels of homelessness throughout Britain this Christmas.
Prime Minister Theresa May this week reiterated the miserly view of the ‘nasty party’ that hard-working taxpayers are reluctant to pay for social services, failing to mention that those who have the most pay the lowest percentage of tax, shouldering the least of the burden of caring for the most disadvantaged amongst us. ‘Tough love’ is the solution she proposes, withdrawing benefits as an incentive to work harder and earn more money.
For many households, however, even those with jobs working all the hours they possibly can, housing has become totally unaffordable. This was the subject of a recent inquiry by the Government’s own Communities and Local Government Committee. Buy-to-let schemes, offering substantial tax breaks to landlords, were designed to stimulate the supply of affordable housing in the private rental market. As it turned out there was steep price inflation in the private rental sector as the supply of social housing fell. In a Seller’s market landlords can pick and choose their tenants. Many will only offer a short-term lease, while 82% say they won’t rent to housing-benefit tenants.
The government’s response has been little more than the announcement of a ban on charging new tenants upfront letting fees, something that The Labour Party has long been calling for. Letting fees impose heavy costs on tenants each time they are forced to move, deterring them from asserting their rights. The ban, however, will do little to tackle the broader issues in the housing market.
At one extreme, ‘homelessness’ takes the form of sleeping rough. Homeless Link summarises figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government earlier this year to show that rough sleeping has increased by 30% in the last year and has more than doubled since 2010. All regions of the UK show an increase in the numbers sleeping rough. London has the largest share of the total, 26%, and a further 23% of the total are located in the South East of England. Tent cities in major cities across the nation have raised the level of public awareness of the problem, but the government doing little to help.
Local Authorities face huge a increase in the cost of dealing with the housing crisis. Eight London councils reportedly moved people into accommodation as far away as the Midlands and the North of England. Ken Loach’s moving film I, Daniel Blake dramatizes the issue, depicting a single mother of two moved away from friends and family into accommodation in Glasgow. Selling off Local Authority capital assets and then having to deal with higher running costs is not good economics. The government’s privatisation strategy is simply not cost effective.
Hidden or ‘invisible’ homelessness is at least as large a problem as recorded homelessness. A large number seeking help are turned away by Local Authorities for not meeting the ‘priority cases’ criteria. They tend to be singles without children. Singles may stay in ‘concealed housing’, in hostels, in squats, on floors, in shared rooms, or with friends and families.
Those sleeping rough are more likely to suffer from mental illness than the population in general, more likely to be victims of violence and much more likely to die young. The NHS reported that the life expectancy of people sleeping rough is thirty years less than the average life expectancy for the population as a whole. The human cost is very real.
The plan to increase home ownership has failed. The plan to reduce social housing and to rely instead on the private rental sector has also failed. The housing market is in total disarray. Homelessness is rising. Wages are not. Escalating rents alongside, at best, stagnant take home pay, has resulted for so many in conditions of poverty, including child poverty, in one of the richest nations of the world. This is a national disgrace. Theresa May’s so-called ‘Just About Managing’ (the JAMs) are not just about managing, they are slipping into the abyss. There is no affordable room at the Inn, or anywhere else for that matter, for far too many this Christmas.