Through the keyhole: introducing the New Statesman's housing week

Over the next week, we're going to be examining the state of housing in Britain today.

Britain's housing situation is shambolic.

Since 1988, house prices have increased by 55 per cent in real terms according to the Halifax house price index — and almost all of that rise happened in just two years. Between 2002 and 2004 the average price of a house in the UK shot from £101,113 to £148,399. Since the market's peak, in 2007, the price of the average UK house has actually declined in real terms, but the price-to-earnings ratio of a house still stands at 4.5:1.

The bad situation nationwide is worse in our cities. As our economy steadily moves away from agriculture and manufacturing towards services, there is an ever-greater incentive to centralise our working lives in these hubs of activity. But expansive green belts stop us building our cities out, and the difficulty of getting planning permissionnot to mention the continued unpopularity of high-rise living — stop us building up.

As house prices have risen, we've also radically changed the way we provide accommodation for the poorest in society. In the post-war era, house-building was done by a mixture of local authorities and private enterprise. By the end of Thatcher's premiership, local authorities had largely stopped building homes altogether; and as a result of the recession, the number of new units built per year by private enterprise has also halved.

Gone is the idea of a council home for life, ideally ensuring stability, community and safety. Those ideals were rarely met, and it's undeniable that council estates had their flaws, but the alternative is worse. The private rental sector is expected to pick up the slack, with rents subsidised by the government's housing benefit. Landlords can, and do, raise rents at any time, forcing families from substandard house to substandard house — and occasionally to hostels, B&Bs and even the streets.

Even while the bottom end of the market is being forced to turn to the private rental sector, the top end is as well. The 0 per cent deposits of the pre-crisis world are gone, apparently forever. But while mortgages have reverted to the nineties, house prices haven't, and so, according to Halifax, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 30 years old (rising to 32 in London). If you want to live in a city, and don't have a nest-egg from your parents, your only option is to rent, usually indefinitely.

An increasing proportion of people renting at both ends of the housing market, matched with the precipitous drop in housebuilding since 2007, obviously means a squeeze on rents. But the government responded, not by tackling the cause, but by capping the amount of housing benefit people could receive, locking a whole social class out of large swathes of London.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the implicit promise that a house purchase is something that you can only ever make money on. If house prices were to fall, that would be disastrous for most people who own property, and that disaster would be passed on to the general economy. But if housing costs are not to fall, then Britain's young people and renters will have to carry on living through the disaster we are already experiencing. "The whole of British housing policy can be seen as an effort to reduce the cost of housing without affecting house prices", says Dan Davies, and that's a doomed attempt from the start.

Over the next week, we're going to be examining these concerns in greater detail. We'll look at the private rental sector, at the criminalisation of squatting and at the virtues of high-rises; we'll also be investigating the cost of the bedroom tax, and the implications of the housing benefit cap. If you think you have something to add to the discussion, you can tweet me or email me, and all the pieces will be collected here (and here) as the week goes on.

Monday: George Eaton on how the bedroom tax will hit disabled people, and Alex Hern on the death of Daniel Gauntlett due to the new anti-squatting laws.

Tuesday: Preston Byrne on why the Eastleigh by-election set back reform of planning laws, and Labour MP Helen Goodman on how trying to live on £18 a week showed the unfairness of the bedroom tax. 

Wednesday: Social researcher Declan Gaffney demonstrates how housing benefit has risen through need alone, and Simon Parkin on the dilemma faced by his grandparents as one of them has to go into care.

Thursday: Jeremy Messenger paints a picture of the omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on tenants in the private rental sector experience, and VMC Rozario gives an innovative idea for how to build more houses.

Friday: Rebecca Tunstall on how housing traps people in unemployment.

A housing estate in Glasgow. 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.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot