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The post-Brexit fantasy of a utopia of flammable sofas

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. 

“Brexit means Brexit.” For nine months now, I’ve been puzzling over this sentence. Theresa May’s later clarification that Brexit means leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European courts hasn’t stopped the itch. What is Brexit, really? What’s the core of it, the essence – the thing that has to happen for Brexit to have happened? I’m not sure that triggering Article 50 is it, but a good test will be whether this simple act calms the hysterics of the sorest winners in history. What is it that the Brexiteers so fear will be snatched away from them? Surely no one feels this emotional about the possibility of a free trade deal with Canada.

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. For Nigel Farage, there’s an end to mass immigration and a return to a Britain where Romanians don’t live next door, hijabs have disappeared and only English is spoken on commuter trains to Kent. For some in the right-wing press, there’s an end to all those slights and restrictions inflicted on our proud, independent nation by faceless bureaucrats and busybodies, even if these often turned out not to be quite as advertised, if not wholly made up. (In 1994, the Sun claimed that the EU had brought in standardised condom sizing that simply couldn’t handle British manhood. This seems, shall we say, unlikely.)

But it’s the final group whose vision of Brexit should be most alarming, because it’s more subtle – and thus harder to counter – than Freudian laments about bendy bananas or straightforward, unabashed xenophobia. For some Eurosceptics, Brexit was a means, not an end: the first step to a different kind of economy. Call this what you want: a less humid (and less interventionist) Singapore, a tax haven with terrible weather, a place where “red tape” can be banished (read: where pettifogging luxuries such as statutory maternity leave are no longer interwoven with international obligations).

If this latter point sounds exaggerated, consider the Whitehall career of Steve Hilton, who was David Cameron’s “blue sky thinker” before moving to California to become a Silicon Valley sage, then returning last summer to detail the case for Brexit and show off his tan. In government, Hilton ran a “red tape challenge”, hoping to banish reams of dead weight from the statute books. Instead, as the former Liberal Democrat adviser Giles Wilkes records, weary civil servants had to defend basic safety measures: “Only the determination of hardy officials saved the public from the return of flammable sofas.”

Perhaps Hilton was unconvinced of the merits of red tape, even then. Perhaps our unwillingness to risk death from furniture-induced burns shows how unready Britons are to compete in the global marketplace. But the saga suggests the possibility that basic employment rights will soon receive the same treatment meted out to benefits and international aid, with every out­lying example and every rare piss-taker used to damn the whole system. The left will find itself having to refight battles that it thought were long since won.

To a certain type of Tory, the answer to every problem is to shrink the state. So Brexit provides another opportunity for the new Bolsheviks such as Michael Gove to smash the bits of Whitehall that they don’t like. (Gove kept a picture of Lenin in his office at the Department for Education as a semi-ironic reference to his revolutionary fervour.) It is no coincidence that the TaxPayers’ Alliance – that scourge of public spending – provided the intellectual ballast behind Vote Leave. When Philip Hammond said that he was ready to “change our economic model” – to become a low-tax, low-regulation state – if the rest of Europe played hardball during the Brexit negotiations, the Chancellor intended to deliver a threat. But some wish it were a promise.

There is only one problem. Only a fraction of the 52 per cent of people who voted Leave want any of this. You can tell because, during the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson began to fret earnestly about “the bankers”, as if he hadn’t spent eight years as London mayor telling the City it shouldn’t be at all apologetic about that rum business with the bailouts. Much was made of how immigration (allegedly) depresses wages.

Voting Leave was presented in protectionist, even left-wing terms: a vote for higher wages and stronger communities, a vote against London and its metropolitan elite. No one said: “Oh, and by the way, we’ll make it easier for you to be sacked.” Or: “Have you ever tasted salmonella? It’s delicious!” Or: “We send £350m a week to the EU. Let’s spend it on bribing companies to stay here after we leave the single market instead.” Brexit was sold as a route to a better life for ordinary workers, not a chance to cast off the shackles of the welfare state and buccaneer into a utopia of Randian self-reliance.

That’s why I find the sullen, boorish machismo of Farage and Arron Banks less dispiriting than the smooth-tongued sales patter of the liberal Leavers. At least Farage is open about what he is and what he wants. Some high priests of Euroscepticism chunter endlessly about “sovereignty” to mask a libertarian agenda for which they know there is no public appetite.

The competing priorities of these two right-wing visions will define the politics of the next decade. Brexit was not the end of an era. It was just the beginning.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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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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