|1925 map by WB Northrop satirising landlords in London. Photograph: Cornell University/PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartology|
It’s been fourteen months since I last commented on the EU referendum. Since that point, an enormous amount has happened, culminating in the stand-off between the UK Government and the EU that we see at the moment.
Along the way, we’ve seen all kinds of political fireworks, from the debacle of the snap General Election, in which the Conservatives had to go into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party to shore up their Government after failing to win a majority, to the Daily Mail resorting to blatant homophobia in its ‘Enemies of the People’ front cover.
What has also been distressingly noticeable, as The Guardian has confirmed, is the rise in the hate crimes that has spiked as a result of the referendum. To claim, as some have done below the line (BTW) in other Guardian articles, that the rise is due to a number of factors rather than the Brexit result, is disingenuous, as this Independent article confirms.
What has also been noticeable since the referendum is a tendency to blame EU migrants for the UK’s housing crisis, and the soaring costs in living - particularly in the capital, but also in certain other parts of the country too. This is far too a simplistic view, and ignores how our housing system works.
As this comment piece for The Guardian points out, in 1981 most people could either afford to buy property outright – at hardly a fraction of what property costs now, even accounting for inflation – or they had access to Council housing. Margaret Thatcher’s policy of selling off Council housing at this time greatly reduced the housing stock, a policy that was exacerbated, to some extent, under Labour. As it turns out, much as that Council housing was often of shoddy make, as Adam Curtis’s first documentary exposed:
There is a kind of passing of the buck in that film which is illustrative of where we are now. Instead of admitting that a lot of the problems that the UK finds itself in are of its own doing, the right-wing media have instead put the blame on others. This ignores the fact that the Government has been hugely ineffective in building new housing. This is because of a combination of factors: those controlling a good deal of housing in this country have very little interest in seeing new housing built. Another Guardian article, this time on the aristocracy, is striking for noting just how much property is concentrated into few hands. As the article states:
“One legal provision unique to England and Wales has been of particular importance to these aristocratic landlords: over the centuries they built many millions of houses, mansion blocks and flats, which they sold on a leasehold rather than freehold basis. This meant that purchasers are not buying the property outright, but merely a time-limited interest on it.”
Much of the aristocracy and the property-owning classes – by the latter, I mean those who own a whole number of properties, not just one - are aligned with the Tories. It’s in the interests of the ruling class to not see further housing built, because it would devalue the portfolio of the property owning classes.
The situation has been exacerbated by a ruthless Not In My Back Yard (NIMBYism) and the lack of thorough regulation of the private sector, which was deregulated in 1989. Unlike many other parts of Europe, the Tories have steadfastly refused to introduce a rent cap, instead leaving it to the free market. The predictable consequences of this are that landlords have been able to get away with murder, condemning the younger generations to have no choice but pay punitively high rents. Add to that the fact that the Tories have sold off public land, and the result has been a perfect storm in the housing sector.
At a time when there is a homeless crisis in London, much property in the capital continues to lay empty – and much beyond. Near where I grew up, an area called Woodberry Down - traditionally a rough and run-down area, but with a thriving community – has been transformed into shiny tower blocks that overlook the reservoirs at Woodberry Wetlands, which I had the fortune to visit nearby. Much of those flats lie empty, with many bought by rich Singaporean businessmen as part of a property portfolio.
There are other examples. From a friends’ flat in Stoke Newington, on the second floor, I can see a huge expanse of grass. That expanse, she tells me, never has anyone in it. It lies empty while kids play football in the tiny yard of concrete next to it. It should be free land, yet is owned by someone who forbids the public from trespassing on it.
Then there is the mansion on City Road, near where I work, that has been lying empty for as long as I can remember. It had been a squat since 1995 – I know, as I went to a squat party there once – before being boarded up. There is now no-one in there, and it continues to lie derelict.
The 21st century has seen property being used as a commodity rather than a place to live, in a way that it never quite was before. This is not the fault of the EU. The fact that entire streets in London have been exposed as full of empty properties because they have been used as part of portfolios by the rich from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Singapore, is a fault entirely of the UK Government. The greatest trick Tory politicians who voted Leave pulled off is convincing the electorate that our housing crisis is due to people from other EU countries living here. Yet leaving the UK will not solve our housing crisis. Only rent caps, and putative taxes on those who leave property empty for a substantial amount of time (or, better still, forcefully taking back the property) can introduce some kind of sanity into a dysfunctional system – something that Corbyn had included in Labour’s manifesto during the General Election. For that, he was savaged by the right-wing press, which only showed their genuine fright at his chances of being elected. At the next GE, it could genuinely happen.