Rich homeowners, poor renters, and so they shall stay

Government policy is on a collision course with itself.

The reason for Britain's chronic housing problem is that the rent is too damn high.

Not just the rent, of course. House prices are too damn high as well, and that leads to the housing benefit bill being too damn high and even the cost of commuting being too damn high.

We know how to reduce rent and house prices, as well. It doesn't take instituting rent controls (a very dangerous proposal, which has the potential to do more damage to the nation's housing stock than the sell-off of council houses ever did), nor does it take changing the legal background to renting to allow tenants to "lock in" to lower rates with long-term contracts. It's a very simple case of supply and demand. The rent is too damn high because supply is too damn low. The solution to our housing problem is as simple as sprinkling abodes liberally across the nation.

The problem is that no one with the power to do so actually wants to reduce the cost of housing. For the 66 per cent of the country who own their own homes, such a policy would be disastrous. The expectation, barely dampened by the recession, that house prices will rise forever, has led to too many gambling their financial survival that there will never be a slump. As long as houses are seen as a safe asset, rather than a potentially-risky investment, then government policy will always have to be to support that view.

Consider what happened when three 100m-high towers, which included 4,500 homes, were considered for White City in West London:

Nicki Grinling, 43, who lives in the St Quintin Estate in North Kensington, said locals were furious at the "underhand way" the plans had been handled: "We've always had fantastic vistas to the west, we see the beautiful sunsets and get lots of light. None of the buildings are higher than two storeys. It has always been the charm of this area, you don't feel like you're in central London."

It may well be the case that building those – comparatively small – towers would have "spoilt the character of the area" (and cast shadows over the Camerons' West Kensington house, to boot). And although Grinling doesn't say so explicitly, the character of complaints like this always carries a financial subtext – house prices will be depressed if the building goes ahead.

This is obviously an issue of intergenerational fairness. 49.5 per cent of owner-occupiers are aged 55 and up, while 56 per cent of renters – in the social and private sector – are below 35. When action is made to protect house prices, the former benefit at the expense of the latter.

But it's also one of equality more generally. The regions where planning permission is easiest to get are the North East and North West, where planning permission is granted in 94 and 90 per cent of cases; in London and the South East, it is granted in just 80 and 84 per cent of cases, respectively. The richer an area is, the harder it is to build something new and affordable in it, and so the more wealth is entrenched in those areas. The planning reforms introduced by the coalition, in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework, includes a presumption in favour of development - this is a good idea, but doesn't come anywhere near resolving these fundamental contradictions.

It's not just that wealth becomes concentrated because younger, poorer people can't move in to the area. The raft of permissions required to build new houses serve many aims, from environmental to community cohesion, but the interests of the propertied are always addressed above those of the dispossessed:

You can object if a change of use or new development will overlook your property, overshadow your property or cause additional noise.

"I was here first" is a fundamental tenet of how we deal with development in this country. So public policy becomes a case of trying to help those who can't buy into the system do so, without harming those already in it.

These two aims are irreconcilable. It is hard to buy a house because supply is constrained, but increasing supply will drop prices. Old housing policy laid the contradiction clear. Building council houses can not be seen as anything but increasing supply, and consequently depressing prices.

But current policy hides the conflict. By shifting housing expenditure from house building to paying the rents of social tenants, the government is able to pretend it will all come out in the wash. And when the constant drive to increase the value of property pays off – as it always would – in soaring housing benefit, the government can cap that, too. And then lower the cap. And scrap housing benefit entirely for under-25s.

Something's got to give. Two government policies are aimed head-on. Their collision may be happening in slow motion, but that's no mercy to those caught in the middle.

 

Sold! And probably entrenching generational divides. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.