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Laurie Penny on rough sleeping: A war on homelessness should mean shelter, not metal spikes

Rough sleeping has almost doubled in London in the past few years and private businesses are making it tough for the new homeless to put down their blankets.

Sharp tactics: the spikes on the ground outside a London block of flats which sparked outrage. Photo: Getty
Sharp tactics: the spikes on the ground outside a London block of flats which sparked outrage. Photo: Getty

"Social housing, not social cleansing." Not long ago, on the hottest day of the year, I saw these words scrawled on a bedsheet in the boiling sun, draped on the gate of an empty east London council home whose tenants had been evicted to make way for “redevelopment”.

There was a time when such a statement would have been considered hyperbolic, but on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, with its boarded-up windows and vacant lots tucked away behind the glittering Westfield shopping centre, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Rents are soaring and London is becoming a city for the rich, with the poor driven out of their communities, away from their families, jobs and schools.

Stratford is only a few miles from Westminster but for the housing minister Kris Hopkins it must seem like a different world – one in which alien people live, scroungers who listen to Pharrell and don’t vote Tory. “I bought a house,” he said in April, defending the soaring price of property across the UK on Newsnight, “and I expect the value to rise”. Hopkins is making money in the new housing bubble. Lucky him. Unfortunately, for the millions of people across the country who are watching their incomes devoured by punishing rent rises, reassurances that the rich are getting richer will be no comfort.

The housing minister is doubly fortunate because, as an MP, he is among the few who can afford to rent in London. It has emerged that some 300 MPs are claiming expenses to rent a second home here and those housing benefits are the only ones not being cut.

Many of the MPs claiming them are the same Tories who voted for the bedroom tax. Last year, Hopkins claimed £18,045 in rent payments for his second home. The employment minister Esther McVey, another supporter of the bedroom tax, claimed £17,227 – presumably for an enormous glass house from which to throw stones.

Can politicians such as these conceive what it means to lack a safe place to live? To be forced to move every six months, preventing your kids from ever settling in at school? To breathe in mouldy air and share a bathroom with ten strangers where the leaky shower always runs cold? We must assume that they can’t imagine it, because the alternative is that they just don’t care.

The scale of the housing crisis in Britain and particularly in London is difficult to overstate. It’s not just a matter of building more homes. There is plenty of housing stock to go around but it is unevenly dis­tributed. Thousands of properties stand empty, accumulating value for the global super-rich, while ordinary workers are increasingly unable to afford to live in cities and 7 per cent of homes in the capital are overcrowded.

Rent controls are the obvious solution but the Conservative Party will go to the wall before it does anything at all to help those who do not own property. So the government’s stopgap has been the Help to Buy scheme – underwriting first-time mortgages with state aid, a policy that may have lit the long fuse of a second financial collapse. The IMF has stepped in to warn the Chancellor that this new housing bubble must be addressed but no emergency measures have been taken. No rent controls. No social construction projects.

Around the capital, where house prices have risen 18.2 per cent this year, metal spikes are appearing on park benches and street corners. Rough sleeping has almost doubled in London in the past few years and private businesses are making it tough for the new homeless to put down their blankets.

Many of us can no longer afford to rent in London – not even if we work full-time. This includes the nurses, teachers and transport workers who make the capital what it is, as well as the artists and students who keep it trendy. As many as 26 per cent of Londoners claimed housing benefit in 2012 and most of those were working. Instead of capping out-of-control rents, the government has chosen to cut housing benefit and artificially inflate the property market. What this means is quite simple. Landlords are doing everything they can to evict tenants to make way for those who can afford average rents of £1,500 per month and rising. Pretty soon, that’s going to be the housing minister and nobody else.

All of this has happened before. In 1832, fearful of the social unrest that was sweeping Europe, the Whigs decided to extend the voting franchise to middle-class men who owned property. For almost a century, you were only allowed to participate in democracy if you had the title to land, buildings or both. Fast-forward 200 years and, yet again, it’s property owners who matter most in our nominal democracy. The Conservative Party has it in for renters. People who rent tend not to vote Tory – so why should they get somewhere safe to live?

When the Tories speak of a “property-owning democracy”, they mean it quite literally. This is becoming a country in which only those who own property matter to the state. That’s what social cleansing looks like and the closer you examine it, the dirtier it looks. By the time this new housing bubble bursts, it will be too late. The British housing crisis is a social, cultural and financial disaster. If action isn’t taken to turn it around, all of us will pay. 

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