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
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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity