From Manctopia to Council House Britain, the UK’s housing paradox is exposed

Two TV series reveal the topsy-turvy, contradictory nature of a system that rewards the creation of unaffordable new homes.

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“They’re all affordable, they’re all great value!” grins property developer Tim Heatley, inspecting progress at one of his five glossy new constructions across Manchester, covered by BBC Two’s four-part series Manctopia: Billion Pound Property Boom.

He’s joking, of course, playing on the word “affordable”. “Affordable housing” is a government term, meaning housing beneath market value – at least 20 per cent below average local market rates for renters, or with mortgage payments below market rate for buyers.

The “joke” is that the 2,000 new homes Heatley is planning for Manchester are “affordable” only to those who can afford them.

“How many are discounted to the market value? None. We haven’t had to – artificially, if you like – reduce the value of them, or make them available to people on low incomes,” he said. “We haven’t had to do that, there’s no obligation on us to do that, we haven’t done that at all.”

Nevertheless, he’s getting away with it. The justification? The population of Manchester city centre is set to double in the next five years.

It’s a common myth often espoused by property developers, government ministers and some councils that any type of new housing is welcome in the face of rocketing demand. This can sound logical and practical – but with the sites visited in Manctopia, as with so many other new developments in high-value central locations, simply building new houses does not meet the true demand.

Multiplying market rate homes in expensive cities like Manchester and London does little for residents being priced out of their own hometowns, like Manctopia’s Christina Hughes – a mother of two in Eccles, working full-time, relying on her mother who lived nearby for childcare.

Served a “no-fault” eviction notice by her landlord, she discovered rents were no longer affordable in her area as she searched for somewhere new. Overwhelming demand for social housing (housing either owned by the council or housing associations at subsidised rates) meant there were over 50 people at a time bidding for council properties, and Hughes was way down on the list.

She was advised to search outside her area, which would have meant losing the support network that helped her work full-time. Only when the programme makers followed her into the housing office with cameras was she offered a property, she revealed to the Manchester Evening News.

Another lifelong resident, Anne Worthington, is fighting for her home’s survival, having received a letter in autumn 2018 indicating that the Seventies era South Collyhurst estate is up for demolition to make way for thousands of new homes as part of the “Northern Gateway Development” – a new housing plan the size of Lancaster.

This paradox – that the more houses built that only wealthier people can afford, the harder it is for locals to find housing – is exposed further by both the homeless charities and individuals profiled in Manctopia who are finding their inner-city spaces shunted to the outskirts.

Down south, it’s the same story, in a new six-part series on Channel 4 called Council House Britain. In its first episode, we learn that one of the UK’s biggest public landlords, Southwark Council, which runs 55,000 properties, has a waiting list of 10,000 people. This in a borough that also hosts “million pound properties”. Housing officer Charmaine, juggling 650 tenants, has to work in her residents’ best interests with scant resources.

We meet plenty of residents stuck in the housing trap. Teaching assistant Sarah returns to her private rented property in East Dulwich one day to discover the lock has changed; the landlord locked them out after her mum fell behind on rent. The arrival of the new welfare system of Universal Credit had put them in rent arrears, as with more than 70 per cent of council tenants in London in 2018.

Unable to afford local rents on her monthly salary of £1,200, ineligible for a council property, and only offered £7 a week of housing benefit on Universal Credit because of her employment, Sarah is advised to “broaden her sights” outside of London. Renting a two-bedroom flat in the city would cost her entire salary.

“Unless you’re in the situation where you’re on the street and you’ve got no income, that seems to be the only way to get somewhere,” she says. “I’ve almost been pushed into a mind frame where I’d be better off if I wasn’t working because I know they would have to do something for me if I wasn’t. But I’m not that type of person.”

There are over a million households currently on social housing waiting lists in England, according to the homelessness charity Shelter. Under the government’s current Affordable Homes Programme, only 4 per cent of the first £2bn of funding was for social rent, and the jury’s out on how much more focus there will be on social housing in its new plans to fund affordable housing over the next five years.

A system that simply rewards indiscriminate housebuilding mistakes private property developers like Tim Heatley and housing officers like Charmaine as having the same intentions.

As Southwark Council’s latest housing strategy document states: “The housing market is simply not delivering safe, secure and affordable housing for too many of our residents.”

The fourth and final episode of Manctopia airs on BBC Two tonight at 9pm; the next episode of Council House Britain airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday 10 September.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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