Equality between the sheets

The "right" to discriminate cuts both ways.

Should a Christian hotel-owner be allowed to refuse a gay couple a double-bed, or is such discrimination no more than bigotry which the law should not allow them to indulge?

The case of Christian hotel-owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull is currently before the Court of Appeal. Earlier this year, the Evangelical couple were ordered to pay compensation to a couple in a civil partnership who had been turned away from their establishment in Cornwall. The conflict is easier to describe than to solve: the law regards civil partnership as equal, in almost all respects, to marriage. But the God worshipped by the Bulls does not.

There would be less debate if the Bulls had refused to employ a receptionist because they discovered that she was in a lesbian relationship, or indeed if they had refused to allow a lone gay man to occupy a single room. But the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing do seem to complicate the situation. The Bulls claim that only married couples are allowed to sleep together in their beds, and that any other arrangement would be an indulgence of sin. Put bluntly, the matter at issue isn't sexual orientation, it's sex - or rather the possibility of sex.

There's some dispute about whether, in fact, the Bulls have been quite so strict about unmarried heterosexual couples as they claim. A prominent member of the National Secular Society who stayed at the hotel in 2006 with his female partner reports having had no trouble getting a room (though they were a bit disconcerted to discover "religious tracts all over the place" once they had booked in). Be that as it may, if the bed being offered is a double one, then the owners are in effect facilitating sexual conduct that may go against their deeply-held convictions.

It's no coincidence that religion has emerged in recent years as a major battleground of social and legal rights. There have been rows about Islamic dress, crosses in the workplace, nurses praying for their patients, sex education in schools. In human rights law spiritual belief occupies an ambiguous status. It is both a category of protection -- for religion is increasingly seen as a source of personal identity -- and a cause of discrimination. It's not always easy to distinguish between the two. Behaviour which a believer may regard as intrinsic to his or her religious identity may involve inconveniencing or discriminating against other people, who also have rights. The law, and society, must choose whose right to upheld. Someone must lose.

Can philosophy help? The British Humanist Association has recently put out a pamphlet, Right to Object?, which takes a broader view of some of the issues at stake.

In his introduction, Alan Howarth locates the point at issue in the conflict between two principles: that of obeying the law (necessary for a functioning society) and that of following one's own conscience, without which one can scarcely be said to enjoy moral autonomy. Balancing the two involves defining a sphere of exemption from what would otherwise be legal requirements. Such a definition, Howarth writes, "must appear especially desirable in a society which prides itself upon its liberalism, tolerance, and its respect for the moral autonomy of individuals." This is true enough, but it does suggest that a certain self-congratulation may be at work here, and also perhaps an element of wishful thinking.

As the philosopher Peter Cave points out in his essay, the weighing and balancing that judges engage in when deciding difficult cases "are smokescreens for 'muddling through'". His own view, which I tend to endorse, is that the law should err on the side of liberality, allowing "a thousand preferences to bloom" provided that there are not significant social ill-effects. He would allow the right of a small hotel run by Evangelical Christians to refuse to offer a gay couple a double-bed, but also allow companies to enforce dress-codes that make no allowances for religious dress. What this seems to mean in practice, though - and what may be going on at a deeper level - is the privileging of the interest of both employers and service-providers at the expense of both employees and customers. Is this really sustainable?

In the case of Mr and Mrs Bull, their preference for a hotel run on the basis of traditional Christian morality need not unduly inconvenience gay couples provided that most hotels don't impose such restrictions. Indeed, hotels like the Bulls' might be said to increase consumer choice for Christian holidaymakers who share their unease at being in the proximity of gay sex.

And consider the converse case. There are hotels and guesthouses that specialise in serving members of the gay community, and may wish to turn away heterosexual couples. In February 2011, shortly after the Bull case came to court, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (in a typical piece of empire-building) announced that they would look into whether gay-only hotels discriminated against straight guests, even though it hadn't actually received any complaints.

In response, the owner of a gay hotel in Bournemouth complained that that Equality Act was a "double-edged sword" that was "killing gay culture." And indeed, one hotel in Blackpool that used to boast openly that it was "exclusively gay" now states on its website that it "welcomes all guests, new and old", presumably in response to the EHRC move. This is surely a perverse outcome of laws designed to protect minorities from discrimination. In the name of diversity, a bland conformism prevails, reducing choice and opportunity for customers as well as owners.

I strongly support the right of bar and hotel-owners to run single-sex gay-only establishments, so long as they are clearly signposted as such. They provide an important service to their community which would be compromised if they were forced to open their doors to heterosexuals. The quid pro quo must be the right of a few Christian hotel-owners to run their enterprises upon openly religious lines.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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How the fire at Grenfell Tower exposed the ugly side of the housing boom

Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society, but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

It’s impressive, in a way, how quickly we slot horrific new events into the beliefs we already hold. In the Grenfell Tower fire – a tragedy that, at the time of writing, is presumed to have cost 79 people their lives – some on the right saw a story about poorly built high-rise ­social housing. The left, however, saw it as fresh evidence of the damage that seven years of austerity had done to local councils.

The fire does feel symbolic: of the inequality at the heart of one of the richest cities in the world; of a government unable to look after its people. But reality rarely slots neatly into our prefabricated narratives and, although the details are still emerging, it already seems as if many of those assumptions were flawed. Experts’ theories about why the fire spread so fast have focused not on the poor quality of the building’s original 1967 design but on problems with the external cladding installed in a £10m refurbishment last year.

What’s more, while most councils have struggled with years of centrally imposed cuts, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) isn’t one of them: it is sitting on reserves worth £274m and, in 2014, found enough money to give council-tax payers a rebate of £100 per head. And yet, it seemed, it could not find the cash to pay for sprinklers or the £5,000 extra it would have cost to use a fire-resistant form of cladding. There was austerity in Kensington, but it was the product of conscious choice, not financial pressure.

Voting intention by housing type in the 2017 election

For a whole week, those who survived the fire faced a second indignity: the uncertainty regarding where they could now live. The day after the tragedy, the housing minister Alok Sharma offered his “guarantee that every single family from Grenfell House will be rehoused in the local area”. This was both morally and politically right – but whether he would have made this promise if he had been more than a couple of days into the job seemed an open question, because few in the housing sector believed it was one he could keep. The council already had more than 2,700 households waiting for accommodation (actually quite low for inner London). It was possible to give priority to survivors of the fire, but it would require pushing others yet further down the list.

Nor did it seem likely that the homes on offer likely to be adequate replacements for those that have been lost. “Most people made homeless in London have a very long wait in temporary accommodation,” Kate Webb, the head of policy at the housing charity Shelter, told me. “And even that is going to be outside of their area.” In the immediate future, at least, it seemed likely it would be much easier to find bed and breakfasts in Hounslow than permanent new homes in Kensington.

In the event, the naysayers, myself included, were wrong: on Wednesday afternoon, after the print copy of this article had gone to press, the Evening Standard reported that the Greenfell families would be rehoused in 68 apartments in the luxury Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. The deal, specially brokered by the Homes & Communities Agency on behalf of the government, was great news for those families. But it is striking that it took a tragedy and national scandal on the scale of Grenfell to make it happen. And those homes – which were always earmarked as social housing – are now not available to the 2,700 other families on RBKC’'s waiting list. They will not be receiving similar treatment.

It doesn’t feel like this should be difficult: Britain is rich, London richer and RBKC the richest borough of all. Yet the shortage of available homes reflects not just some kind of moral failure on the part of the council but a genuine shortage of property.

Who is building houses?

To be blunt about this: we have not been building enough for a very long time. In the decade after the 2001 census, London’s population grew from 7.3 million to 8.2 million, an increase of roughly 12 per cent. The capital’s total number of homes, however, increased by just 7 per cent. Both trends have continued since, with all sorts of entirely predictable results: higher rents, overcrowded homes, hilarious news items about renters going to see “studio flats” that turned out to be a bed in a shed with a tree growing through the wall.

London’s housing crisis is the biggest and most visible in the country yet it is far from unique. In Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol – in almost any city with a decent jobs market – housing costs have soared in recent years. In other parts of the UK, house prices are lower; but so, unfortunately, are wages. The result is a collapse in property ownership among the under-40s – and, one is tempted to suggest, flatlining national productivity and unexpected enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

We know how to fix this (in that we know how to build more homes) but we haven’t, for two main reasons. One is that we have inadvertently constructed a housing market in which nobody has both the interest and the capacity to build more. Private developers bid for land based on the price they believe they will be able to sell new homes there for. As a result, if prices fall, they stop building: look at a graph of housing supply over the past 50 years, and it is abundantly clear that the private sector will never give us the homes we need.

This would be fine if other organisations were allowed to build but they are not. Housing associations are restricted by government finance rules. Councils were explicitly banned from fully replacing homes sold under Right to Buy; today, they lack the money and, after decades of disempowerment, the expertise, too. The 2004 Barker review argued that the UK needed to be building 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand. It feels telling that the last year we managed to do this was 1979.

Total government grant to local councils

The other reason we haven’t built enough homes is that we place such tight restrictions on what we can build. Land-use restrictions such as on the green belts prevent our cities from growing outwards; rules on tall buildings prevent them from growing upwards. These are often legal, but are rigidly enforced by public demand.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of Richmond Park, residents of the west London suburbs, fought a noisy campaign to stop tall buildings from being built 14 miles away in Stratford, in the East End of London, because they would ruin their protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The buildings wouldn’t prevent west Londoners from seeing St Paul’s, you understand: the buildings could simply be seen behind it. All these restrictions, all these campaigns, are there to protect something good. Between them, they add up to a shortage of housing that is blighting lives.

It is hard not to notice the parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the broader housing crisis. RBKC bosses chose to promote electorally motivating tax cuts for the borough’s largely rich residents over fire safety in its social homes. As a nation, we have consistently chosen to protect the views and house prices of those who have housing over the needs of those who don’t. Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

The survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were left homeless by the tragedy, and it looked for several days like that they would have nowhere else to go. Both of these things may well have been avoidable. But austerity is not just a policy: it’s a state of mind. 

George Eaton: The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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