Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an acute awareness of how important it is to have somewhere decent to live.
Seems an obvious thing I know, but part of growing up is learning to appreciate the obvious. I walk home every day reflecting on how lucky I am that I don’t have to share a room with three brothers, that I don’t share a bed with an elderly relative, that I can heat my home and cook and wash, that I have a place to go if I do ever lose the home I rent now.
Many, many people are not in that fortunate position, thanks to the property bubble and a chronic underbuild of affordable housing. There are millions in overcrowded properties, another million homeless or sofa surfing. Waiting lists are now so long that even the Tory-led National Government has had to pledge a token number of new social homes. Unfortunately, its plans have been condemned not just by housing charities but also the construction and landlord industries as being both inadequate and unrealistic.
More and more political debate comes back to housing allocation. Labour leader Ed Miliband, under the evil thrall of Lord ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman, appeared to reject the need-based model of allocation when he praised a project in Manchester that prioritised ‘those who are giving something back to their communities – for example, people who volunteer or who work.’ The subtext here is: ‘Let’s provide homes for Those Who Are Deserving, and not large workless families on housing benefit.’
Here is Ed’s problem. True, people do have children that they can’t support. But that won’t guarantee state help. There was a recent case in Manchester where a woman with six children in a three-bed house had been on the transfer list for eleven years. She won’t get a move because only twelve four-bed homes became available last year and there are nine thousand people on Manchester’s list. There are four and a half million on lists nationwide and there will be another million or so as spending cuts hit.
We need around 240,000 new homes per year to meet demand and are building about half that. Whether we allocate by need or virtue, millions of people are losing out. It is a futile game of musical chairs. And it has become a G-spot issue for people who argue over the few remaining seats without stopping to think who’s playing the music.
If David Cameron cared about this issue, he would go to the IMF and say something like: ‘Look, chaps, here’s the thing. We are a country that cannot afford to house its citizens. I know, I know. It’s simply mortifying. Could we have a development grant or something?’
Maybe there’s another choice. The squatters’ movement had a resurgence in the 2000s when the boom drove up city rents. Perversely, there is a chronic housing shortage plus almost a million void properties. They are empty because owners can’t be bothered to do them up, or are waiting until they can sell them on in a recovered market. Recent reports say that squatters now include families who couldn’t make mortgage payments in the recession.
People invested unhealthy amounts of money and emotion in home ownership only to see dreams crash with the crash. This will become mainstream. Many squatters work on and improve properties they inhabit. It’s not just middle-class hipsterism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The squat in Guy Ritchie’s Fitzrovia place, the HSBC rave, these were great protests and should be celebrated. While the LSE’s religious/totalitarian sympathisers bowed to Gaddafi, the real radical left invaded his mansion and opened it to Libyan refugees. An occupier told Laurie Penny that ‘We are not here to cause any damage… Why would we? It’s our house! It belongs to the Libyan people. We’re here to make sure it isn’t sold to finance more killing.’
Naturally, the government is trying to criminalise it. Cameron has thrown an anti-squatting law into the compromised mess of Ken Clarke’s criminal justice bill. As squat campaigner Paul Reynolds points out, this is essentially the criminalisation of homelessness at a time of housing crisis. I have no idea how this law would be enforced or even if it would be enforced. I think that like so many of this government’s policies, it will be counterproductive, and it will hit them hard.
Housing is where politics becomes real. The British public will put up with just about anything. But I can’t help think that there will be bad consequences for this government if it closes off more housing options for people who have very few options anyway.