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The housing crisis is at the heart of its national nervous breakdown

The housing crisis is at the heart of its national nervous breakdown

By John Harris

Over the past three years, commentary about the nervous, uncertain condition of Britain has repeatedly veered into questions of "belonging" and community. These things tend to be framed in terms of culture: conversations about whether liberals and leftwingers can speak to people attached to nation and place, angst about flags, understandable fears about the point at which such things blur into nastiness and bigotry. In the process, one crucial point is rather missed. If you are going to talk about whether people feel rooted, and the absolute basics of community, there is one subject that ought to command your attention: that of the basic, primal idea of home, and the fact that far too many people in this country either do not have one, or worry that the one they possess might be about to get snatched away. It is, in other words, time we talked about our national predicament - and indeed, what might be at stake in the election, whenever it arrives - by acknowledging that housing is a central issue, and always has been. The nitty-gritty of politics is often reduced to the cliche of "schools and hospitals". But think of the aftermath of each world war, and the great steps forward marked by the concerted building of council houses. Or the way that, post-1979, Thatcherism became hegemonic via the right-to-buy scheme, and the sale of many of those same homes to their occupiers - and then in turn to private landlords, a fact that defines a lot of the dysfunction of modern Britain. And let's not forget: it was housing that tipped the world into the crash of 2008, when the banks finally confronted the lunacy of sub-prime mortgages, essentially a replacement for the public housing the US - and the UK - had forgotten how to build. When I try to get a sense of the anxieties and fears that sit under Brexit by talking to people who voted to leave, it doesn't take long for this subject to come up. The standard concern will be something like, "I just worry my kids won't have anywhere to live" - whereupon the conversation will tumble into predictable complaints and fears. According to research commissioned by the National Housing Federation (which represents housing associations), 3.6 million people in England are living in an overcrowded home, 2.5 million are unable to afford their rent or mortgage, and another 2.5 million are in "hidden households" they can't move out of - including house-shares, adults living with their parents, or people living with an ex. Rates of home ownership among the under-35s are at less than half the levels of 20 years ago. Homelessness, both visible and hidden, has become a grimly mundane part of life. A million families are stuck on council waiting lists; in 2017-18, a pitiful 6,463 units of social housing were built in England, down from 30,000 a decade before. If you hear the phrase "new housing", what comes to mind? In our big cities, it will probably be high-end, supposedly "luxury" apartments, marketed via a dream of glamour and ease, and usually devoid of any realistically affordable element. A perfect case in point is Manchester, where the city council talks up its plans for new housing in "affordability zones", but controversy about the arrival of opulent residential developments in the city centre is reaching a peak. Last week, one of the leading architects involved baldly claimed that "there aren't enough expensive homes in the city"; most Mancunians I speak to think the opposite is true. Woven into the spectacle of four-bedroom flats in Manchester selling for £3.5m and apartments being snapped up by investors in Hong Kong are companies that symbolise the inequalities of the modern city. A good example is Moda Living, which oversees £1bn of property assets from an HQ in Belgravia in London. In central Manchester, its Angel Gardens development will apparently start filling up with tenants next month. A flat there comes with access to personal trainers, flexible workspaces, a "rooftop sports court", "residents' sky lounge", and credit with Uber. Studio flats start at £1,050 a month; three-bedroom apartments at £2,050. For people at the upper range of the income scale, these may look like modest outlays, but for most of the people who live and work in and around the city, they are clearly out of bounds. Beyond the metropolis, what new housing awaits you? As if to symbolise the divide between city and town that sits at the heart of our national angst, well away from the gleam of all those urban towers, most English towns are now ringed by standard-issue developments, in which houses are usually built in line with a miserably small number of basic templates, often beyond people's budgets, and plagued by stories of nonexistent amenities and poor building standards. Again, there is a paradigmatic company here: Persimmon, the building giant that crash-landed in the headlines in late 2017 when its chief executive was about to be paid a bonus package amounting to £110m. Fattened up by loans to house-buyers under the Help To Buy scheme, the company is making profits put at £66,000 per house. It also has a record of shoddy standards and poor service crystallised by a quote given to the makers of a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year: "We fully accept that on too many occasions in the past we have fallen short on customer care and the speed and empathy with which we dealt with problems." As things stand, the future seems to fall between this model of precarious property ownership and a top end reserved for a tiny urban aristocracy, with a growing number of people clinging on in a private-rented sector which is forecast to soon contain one in four households, and is often a byword for negligent landlords. And what is the response of people in power? As evidenced by madcap plans to extend the right-to-buy concept to housing association homes, the Conservative party is still attached to the very ideas that led us into this mess, and lost for words about anything more relevant: aside from a mention of building standards, the recent Queen's speech made no mention of housing at all. By contrast, looking at Labour's policy on housing gives you the sense of people prepared to think ambitiously. Leaving aside such gimmicky ideas as John McDonnell's suggestion that right to buy should be introduced to the private rented sector, the party wants "the biggest council housebuilding programme in 30 years", and an annual 100,000 "genuinely affordable homes" to be built, a figure this year's party conference pushed beyond 150,000. There is also a pledge to "remove the 'viability loophole', which allows developers to dodge affordable housing obligations". By implication, at the centre of this is an inescapable point: that if we built the houses we needed, the sense of a population often terrified of the future and anxiously hanging on to whatever they have would at last recede. Every so often, you get a glimpse of what such high ideals might mean in practice - something that happened earlier this month, when the Royal Institute of British Architects' annual Stirling prize was awarded to Goldsmith Street, a council-housing development in Norwich. The great flurry of headlines this story created couched what had happened in terms of a miracle - but viewed from another angle, these were just good-quality, green-oriented houses, built in line with people's needs, in the city where they need to live and work. Homes remain the best measure of our national progress, or lack of it: we will know we are living in better times when such things are not thought of as magical, but thoroughly ordinary.

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