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Any event that highlights the tragic state of housing and homelessness in the UK is to be welcomed. On 17 March, around 2,300 activists from across the country converged on Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to hear solutions from all the political parties – and just about anybody with a vested financial interest in housing. This was the Homes for Britain rally. Reflecting the management of the event by the National Housing Federation, many were housing association employees, who earlier had floated an eight-square-metre inflatable house above the London skyline on Hampstead Heath, bearing the slogan ‘An affordable home shouldn’t be out of reach’.
Well, the hot air didn’t stop there. The Pied Piper of private home ownership was hailed again and again as the solution to the ‘crisis’. A mass amnesia seems to have occurred, with everyone ignoring or conveniently forgetting that it was this that had caused the crisis in the first place.
It’s a fairy-tale without a happy ending. The government subsidises PRIVATE construction companies to build more new homes – so-called social housing, but also for sale and allegedly affordable. PRIVATE banks lend money to everyone and anyone with the right to buy, and when they can’t afford repayments or they sell their property on for profit, it falls back into the hands of the PRIVATE sector and we are back to extortionate rents, appalling conditions and a growing homelessness.
And there are frightening signs that this story is about to be retold. Under John Major’s government, some housing association tenants were able to buy their homes under a scheme called ‘right to acquire’, which offered tenants very modest discounts and applied only to homes built or acquired after 1997. The new fairy-tale, sorry ‘plan’, is to make all 2.5 million housing association homes eligible for sale at increased discounts – 30% has been suggested by the Centre for Social Justice – all to be funded by the state, with the help of the banks of course.
Britain suffers from a crisis of social demand not private supply, and what links these two is home ownership. There are 1.5 million unoccupied buildings in the UK – of which an estimated 700,000 are empty homes. There are 1.8 million people on social housing waiting lists. Yet already Boris Johnson and other pantomime villains have bought the fairy-tale of right to buy and scurried after the Pied Piper’s whistle. This may be the goose that laid the golden egg for some, but for the 60,000 stuck in temporary accommodation (and that’s just in England), it’s a bloody nightmare that seems to never end!