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

"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. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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What can we learn from Liam Fox's book? (Or, at least, from the first chapter)

How Liam Fox helps us face the new era, using orcs, Socrates and his knowledge of general medicine.

It’s a weird and wacky world, people, and we reach for political theory as a way of understanding the myriad linkages – ideological, emotional – between collectives of all sorts and individuals. Reach for political theory, and more importantly political history, for surely it can only be through an understanding of history that we can hope to reach into the shaken-up snow-globe and make sure the itty-bitty little snowman doesn’t get blown to buggery by the winds of change? For profundities such as the above I am indebted, latterly, to Dr Liam Fox, the erstwhile defence minister and currently Theresa May’s International Trade supremo – latterly because I’m primarily indebted to civil servants in his new bailiwick who have revealed to Private Eye that Dr Fox has insisted that they buy his 2013 globalisation excursus, Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era, if they want to do just that.

The Eye snarked that Dr Fox’s book had sold just 1,876 copies thus far, but in fact that’s a perfectly respectable sale for a title by a contemporary politician. Ask the residents of Southmoor in Essex how they feel about instantly remaindered political books – half the village disappeared last year into a sinkhole that opened up when thousands of copies of On a Clear Day by David Blunkett, which had been buried in an adjacent landfill, reached a critical point of putrefaction. Some might describe this as ironic, others as justice. Anyway, inspired by Dr Fox’s self-conviction, and wanting to know what we can expect from the man who will be guiding our destiny as a trading nation through the savage cross-currents in the coming years, I hied me to the Amazon cloud reader to read the free sample.

Some might say this was the act of a hack who cares naught for the intellectual property of other writers, and is not prepared to put in the hard work required to understand the full compass of Dr Fox’s thinking, but my view is that the man himself will sympathise with my raw intellectual hunger. So pithily apodeictic (though simultaneously lyrical) is his own writing, that I came away from the free sample richer, wiser, and well equipped to advance his ideas to New Statesman readers – for which I believe both he, and you, will be grateful.

So, I mentioned history earlier, but let the man himself tell you how important it is to him, and us. “I am not one of those who believes that history repeats itself in the most literal sense,” Dr Fox writes, “but I do believe that the types of problems we face are repeated in time and realm.” True, it’s hard to think which “those” he might be thinking of, beyond the character of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but otherwise I think this is positively seer-like stuff.

Dr Fox’s use of the slightly archaic “realm” in the above may have given you pause for thought. Masterful prose writer that he is, he is softening his readers up for what comes next: a quotation from that great chronicler of humankind’s history, J R R Tolkien. And this, if I interpret it rightly, suggests that when trying to understand the motivation of jihadists, our best guide is the psychology of, um, orcs. But the history of Middle Earth alone cannot supply wisdom – neither for concerned citizens nor for the elves who lead them. For that, we require additional professional expertise, and Dr Fox is once again our man. Like the great Socrates, upon whose method he has undoubtedly based his own, Dr Fox teases out the technê of statecraft by analogy with his own illustrious medical career, in which: “The first task was to gather all the data possible about the patient and their complaint.”

Yes! How true this is. It makes me think of a hypothetical patient (or politician) whose complaint is that although he once held one of the high offices of state – one that requires of its incumbent great probity and discretion – he nonetheless attended many important meetings accompanied by an adviser who had no security clearance, and who had extensive links to lobbyists for defence contractors. Further, it makes me hypothesise that this patient (or politician), set up a “charity” to fund the activities of this “adviser”, which in turn had to shut down because of a mephitic odour, which – were I to have Dr Fox’s training – I’d probably diagnose as symptomatic of rot. It’s true that Dr Fox cautions his readers to “skip over any detail which seems excessive”, but then again: “I believe history brings some context to the subjects covered, something I think is often missed in contemporary debate.” Yes; and if it were the case that the same hypothetical patient had overclaimed the most expenses of any Tory frontbencher – including the rent on a flat used by the aforementioned special adviser – well, that would seem to provide some context for understanding how he’d function were he, once more, to hold a high office of state.

These, it seems, are the sorts of things being missed by contemporary debate. It’s as if the result of the EU referendum in June hit some sort of hard reset in the British political system: everything was turned off and turned on again, and in the process we have indeed forgotten our history, and so, like Phil Connors, we are doomed to repeat it. Thank the Lord for Dr Fox, whose civil servants will by now have absorbed their new boss’s forensic credo. When he was a general practitioner, having dealt with his own patients’ history and placed their symptoms in the right context: “The third task was to determine the course of treatment in the light of best accepted practice and the most up-to-date information available.”

Hear, hear! Given that the most up-to-date information available is that our hypothetical patient-cum-politician is still mired in the rising tide of his own bullshit, the most advisable course of treatment would appear to be euthanasia. After all, Dr Fox isn’t one of those who believes that history literally repeats itself – so a second resignation is out of the question. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump