Do we not all deserve a place we call home?

Renting in the private sector means an omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on.

 

I had my disagreements with M in the past; every time dramatic gestures would amplify his laughable threats that came straight from films and TV.  But on this particular occasion, as I sheltered in the doorway to my bedroom, I was shocked by his peaceful movement and expression, so at odds with the situation, as he advanced down the hallway towards me, dragging the baseball bat behind him.

M, and his partner O, previously strangers to me, were my flatmates in a shabby little South London flat.  Earlier that day O had ended their relationship, and on the come down from a coke binge M imprisoned her in their bedroom, beating and strangling her.  Hearing her cries for help I intervened, and just in time. 

Through 12 years of renting in the private sector I have found that sharing, even with friends, can be traumatic.  It requires a willingness to make uncomfortable compromises and the ability to forgive.  What should be a place of safety and comfort can very easily become the site of conflict and unrest.

The government’s decision last year to increase the age of entitlement to a one bedroom flat from 25 to 35 for a single Housing Benefit Claimant was perhaps a signal of their intentions rather than the reflection of an existing social trend.

As the pressure for a flexible and mobile labour force increases whilst wages go down and rents go up, sharing accommodation with strangers will become the norm, particularly for the young.  Compatibility between co-tenants is a gamble, particularly considering the unavoidable intimacy of the relationship.  And behind closed doors there is little protection from bullying and violence.

Commitment to a fixed-term contract and the inordinate cost of securing new accommodation can mean that once entered the situation is inescapable.

What will be the effect on the incidence and severity of mental health problems as the number of people living in conditions of persistent uncertainty and anxiety increases? Sadly, experiences like mine with O and M may well become more common.

Of course, privacy and stability are issues common to all tenants in the private sector.  To rent is to live in a house, not a home.

Right now, I am lucky to have a reasonable landlord; still, I am often reminded that this isn’t my home.  I must periodically submit to invasive flat inspections and nosey workmen who enthusiastically report back to the landlord as though I am under suspicion. 

A homeowner is master of their domain whereas the tenant has a master in their landlord.  The privacy afforded to tenants and homeowners is distinct.

When the people upstairs forget to turn off their taps and with every unavoidably defunct appliance I inch closer to making an enemy of my landlord, despite my contractual obligations and his.  Costing him money, pissing him off, will mean moving again – as soon as the contract expires I will be asked to leave.

Homeliness is a patina; an accrual of memories and emotional attachments.

The reality of renting is that each situation is only ever temporary. 

Like many people of my generation I will probably never own a home of my own.  I am instead destined to pay the mortgage for somebody else, investing a significant proportion of my income in an inheritance for someone else’s children.  But this goes beyond the flow of money from the poor to the rich.

The poor find themselves at the bottom of yet another hierarchy, this time with their landlord at the top.  With only the qualification of relative wealth, landlords have potentially devastating power over their tenants. 

Like trees that cannot spread their roots, the poor have no anchor in a storm. They can be destabilised and moved on with very little effort. Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging.

Last week in the Spectator , oozing with good intentions, Housing Minister Mark Prisk declared “I’m determined to make the Privately Rented Sector bigger and better.”  

Forcing more people into private sector tenancy ensures that the poorest are detached and powerless; unable to fight for their right to freedom. 

Do we not all deserve a place that we can truly call home?

Unlike homeowners, tenants in the private sector have no foundation, no belonging. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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