“Surrounded by boxes yet again, about to move knowing that we will be moving again in the new year. I have cleaned and painted the new flat and it’s still a dump. I am forty-six and I have lived in over thirty houses and I still have no security.” This was posted on social media at the end of 2016 by Jan.
She has a good job earning almost £40,000 a year, her husband works full time, they have two children and this is what they have to put up with. These are some of the replies her post elicited, none of which registered surprise: “Truly a tragedy isn’t it. Other countries so different.” “What a nightmare. There is nothing more destroying to peace of mind than moving because you have to.”
In the adverts on the hoardings all over the city is another London, populated by smart-looking people and luxury balcony apartments. The capital is being transformed by one of the greatest waves of new construction seen in the city, with no fewer than 300 planned luxury residential towers going up. Nine Elms, a huge development which stretches from Lambeth Bridge to Chelsea Bridge, will be home to the luxury Battersea Power Station Complex, the new US embassy and Embassy Gardens, which, with its Sky Pool suspended ten storeys up in the air between two luxury tower blocks, is at the pinnacle of new London.
From Nine Elms up to Vauxhall and along to Southwark and Blackfriars bridges, mile upon mile of serried ranks of balconied apartments in gated complexes have already been built and at Elephant and Castle the Australian property developers are working with Southwark Council to render the area unrecognizable, replacing with a forest of luxury towers the affordable housing which once characterized the area.
In the “alpha” parts of London – St John’s Wood, Highgate, Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, Kensington, to name but a few – entire neighbourhoods have changed out of all recognition over the last decade. Now even the wealthy are displaced from Kensington by multimillionaire “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals”, who in turn displace others from central London to suburban areas, creating a domino effect that ripples out through the city, with the consequence that average-income earners and the poor move to the periphery or out of the capital altogether, placing pressure on housing and prices around the country.
This is a new politics of space which is not limited to London: The same circuits of global capital are also transforming San Francisco, New York and Vancouver in North America, European cities from Berlin to Barcelona and towns and cities in the UK, from Bristol to Manchester and Margate to Hastings. This has led to a constant hum of debate about the impacts of that much misunderstood term “gentrification”. But this isn’t gentrification, it’s another phenomenon entirely, linked to a flood of often corrupt money into London. According to a report which researched landmark developments 40 per cent of homes sold to investors were from high corruption risk countries, or those hiding behind anonymous companies.
Instead of investigating the impact of foreign investment, the government argues that the housing crisis is a question of supply and demand, claiming that we simply need to loosen planning restrictions and build more homes for sale. It may seem logical enough to argue that if we increase housing supply then prices will come down and there will be more homes to go around, but the UK housing market doesn’t function like a pure market: it is linked to global capital flows, not local circumstances. These global flows are distorting the market and ensuring supply is being skewed towards investors.
Since the financial crisis the glut of foreign investment combined with Quantitative Easing boosted wealth at the top and witnessed soaring property prices while “estate regeneration”, is making the situation even worse by demolishing genuinely affordable homes in housing estates of all over London. Advocates of this policy claim that “sink estates” are being replaced by larger numbers of housing but critics point out that while more apartments are being built they are financially far out of reach of ordinary Londoners. At the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle 3,000 homes of predominantly social housing have been replaced with 2,704 luxury apartments, of which only 82 are social housing; in the first phase of the development 100 per cent of the properties have been sold to foreign investors. Across London, up to 100 estates are being demolished and there are plans for many more to undergo the same process.
The reason developers are able to get away with building so little genuinely affordable housing is because the planning system no longer works as its post war architects intended. Created as part of the post war settlement, alongside the NHS, the 1947 Planning Act included mechanisms to ensure that the huge rises in land value that came with planning permission would contribute to affordable housing. Effectively a land tax, similar to that used in many other countries, this was abolished in 1986, paving the way for the speculative house building model we have today.
Today the system of developer’s contributions to affordable housing has disintegrated into farce, through the use of an opaque and commercially confidential process known as ‘financial viability assessments’ which enable developers and house builders to argue that they can’t afford to build more than very small amounts of affordable housing. This is despite research from Sheffield Hallam University which reveals that end of year profits for the five biggest house builders rose from £372 million in 2010 to over £2 billion by 2015, a staggering increase of over 480 per cent.
As for inflation in house prices, that has shown similar increases, rising by 166 per cent since the 1970s – compared to Germany where it has been virtually stable – and an eye watering 513 per cent in London. If food prices had tracked housing inflation over the last forty years then today a chicken would cost £50, and a chicken in London would be £100.
Because housing today is first and foremost a financial asset, for the majority of homeowners this brings considerable benefits. But increasingly they are affected too, as their children are priced out of the market while the myth that Britain is a nation of homeowners looks evermore shaky with the UK falling to the fourth lowest home ownership in Europe, which at 64 per cent is the lowest since 1986.
At the same time, cuts have combined with little known policies to create a market in housing benefit which is creating inflationary pressures on rents for everybody. The result is tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people who are unable to afford rents and forced out of their homes; thousands of families have had to leave London and in Westminster rehousing families in other cities is now official policy.
The situation has been at its most acute since the financial crash, as a result of the combination of austerity, foreign investment and Quantitative Easing. But the housing crisis is not new: its foundations were laid in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy which saw the sale of 2 million homes, with councils forbidden to use the money to build new homes. This combined with Buy to Let, with the consequence that 40 per cent of those former council homes are now owned by private landlords and rented out at three and four times the price of council rent. The result is a soaring housing benefit bill which has seen the amount paid to private landlords double from £4.6bn in 2006 to £9.3bn in 2016.
The shift in policy from building and investing in council homes, to private renting paid for by housing benefit was deliberate. In 1991, when the then Conservative housing minister Sir George Young was asked what the government would do about rising rents he said, “housing benefit will take the strain”, which became one of the most famous phrases in housing. But with the cuts to housing benefit which is capped, it no longer covers the full cost of rising rents, forcing people who can’t afford the increases from their homes.
There is nothing inevitable about the housing crisis or the soaring rates of housing inflation and rising benefit bill that go with it. It is the result of a specific set of policies, put in place a generation ago and ramped up since the Conservative-led coalition came to power in 2010.
The scale of the housing crisis is now so grave that only a paradigm shift can begin to address it. So far, solutions from both main parties involve only tinkering at the edges. Instead we need a new social contract in housing and planning which will ensure that housing becomes a public good once again and not just a financial asset.