By Stuart Jordan
As you take the escalator out of Euston underground in London, the new hi-tech video advertisements display a load of badly-clothed children pressing on the screens, trying to get out.
The advert then switches to plain red background with the familiar Shelter logo and the caption “These kids need a home. Text ‘Houses’ to join Shelter’s online petition.”
This advert refers to Shelter’s current housing campaign which is lobbying John Prescott (and will be lobbying his successor) to build 20,000 new “affordable social rented” homes on green and brownfield sites across the UK.
Apparently, Prescott has agreed to back the project on the proviso that Shelter employ a load of “charity muggers” and PR folk to collect one million signatures. But if the government can happily turns a blind eye to the voices of two million people on the eve of the Iraq war, why is it so willing to respond to a bit of people power with regards the housing crisis?
Ever since Margaret Hodge “backed” the BNP last year, housing has been high on the political agenda. Although Hodge ensured them much publicity, the success of the BNP was due in no small part to their racist propaganda around housing issues. Thus (argue idiots, like John Humphreys) the only way to hold back the tide of racial hatred is to get multi-national building contractors to build a load of crap toy-town housing on all our green spaces.
In this climate, Prescott and the Berkley Homes brigade seem to have played the well-meaning homeless charity, Shelter, for a mark. With loads of red-coated, clipboard wielding young folk making the case for more homes, the property developers must be laughing.
There is a real lack of homes for people to live in. Gordon Brown uses this myth as a reason to propose five new eco-towns. Brown should take note...
Figures from 2006 claim that 663,328 houses are empty, 593,487 of which are owned by private landlords (Empty Homes Campaign). A lot of middle class, high-earners have decided to augment their income by getting into the property game. This has inevitably created a situation whereby first-time buyers are priced out of the market and forced into living in rented accommodation. Massive amounts of homes lie empty because of a new fad in property speculation.
This is not the Changing Rooms phenomena, where people buy a shit house, do a bit of DIY and sell it for twice the value. Rather, this is people buying a house, doing nothing and selling it a few years down the line at a massive profit.
For those of us who just want somewhere to lay our heads, the situation gets much worse when we consider that the number of council houses has halved in the last 20 years ago. Almost thirty years on from the introduction of Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy, the majority of those individually privatised homes are now in the hands of middle-class private landlords.
You can live on a council estate but you have to pay well over the odds to a private individual, and you are excluded from the limited democracy that tenants’ and residents’ associations can wield over their councillors.
For the two million-odd people who do live in council houses, the government is doing everything in its power to sell the homes to private housing associations. Millions of pounds have been spent in trying to convince tenants to give up their tenancies to a private housing contractor, and all sorts of dirty tricks have been employed to rig the votes.
In 2003-4 Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that selling off council housing costs the taxpayer at least £1,300 a home more than councils doing the improvements themselves. But the real scandal is that whereas a private housing association would use rent money to maintain its housing stock and reinvest in future developments, central government takes £1.5 billion out of the Housing Revenues Account each year and plugs it into other projects (Defend Council Housing 2004-5).
The only way to get some of this money back is to agree to one of the government’s three privatisation schemes – Stock transfer, PFI or ALMO. Council tenants are being offered an ultimatum: either give up cheap rents, democratic accountability and publicly-owned housing for future generations or watch while we let your house fall into disrepair. Thankfully, the council tenants are seeing through all this blackmail and fighting back.
Shelter’s campaign is muddying the waters. The problem with houses is that some people own more than they need. If Shelter was a serious political organisation, then it would be siding with the grassroots campaign to defend council housing and raising serious objections to second (and multiple)-home ownership.
As a “respectable” NGO it is being used as a feel-good PR machine for Prescott and his fat cat friends in order that they can gain public support for their agenda to destroy our green spaces and build Noddy homes in the interests of private profit.
It is no surprise to discover that back in 2004 the Treasury published a report recommending that 23,000 “affordable social houses” and 70,000 private sector (i.e. unaffordable, unsocial) houses need to be built each year in order to ward off a collapse of the housing market (see Barker Review). In light of this, Shelter’s campaign is nothing other than a PR exercise for policy that has already been made.
Playing on middle-class guilt about homelessness, it deflects attention from the real issue of council housing provision and the growing militancy of the tenants’ movement.
The real genius of the campaign lies in the way it gives a veneer of participatory democracy and grassroots activism to a housing agenda that is distinctly anti-democratic, anti-environmental and anti-working class.