This radical plan could be the way to get social housing back on track – The Guardian



Home should be a sanctuary. Warm and safe, it is a place where a door can be firmly closed on the trials, threats and stresses of the outside world. A place you can rest, and enjoy your leisure time.

For as long as there have been people, they have needed homes. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, warmth and rest sit alongside food and water at the base of the pyramid. In his theory, only when those basic needs are met can we concern ourselves with higher goals.

You don’t need me to tell you that in the UK, a home has become so much more than this. Here, homes are investments, cashed in for retirement, left standing empty, or let at extortionate rates. Homes are status markers, their values shoehorned into newspaper articles (because how much your house is worth says something fundamental about who you are).

We have commodified this most basic of essentials to the point where its original purpose has been overlooked. Homes are no longer the shelter to which a human is entitled, but a symbol of your position in the social hierarchy. Home ownership is a goal to which many of us aspire but which eludes millions of people.

You shouldn’t need me to tell you that there is a nationwide housing crisis, but many people, safely and comfortably ensconced, still refuse to believe it, or insist it is only a London problem. (Tell that to the people in my home village in north Wales, who have had to move because of a boom in second homes. Tell that to my mother, who has just viewed a succession of mouldy, expensive hovels to rent in Cheshire. Tell that to the people living in tents in cities across the country.)

A cross-party commission released a report today, saying that England needs to build 3m council and social homes in the next 20 years to rescue all the people who are paying extortionate rents in overcrowded, unsuitable and even dangerous homes. These houses, the report says, are not just for the weak, the disabled and the desperate, but for what some might call “normal people”, if they have lost their humanity to the extent that they’ve bought into the narrative that poverty can be blamed on those who are mired in it.

The report argues that these council homes should also be for young people – for many buying a house will be an impossibility unless something drastic changes – and the 700,000 older people trapped in private rental properties. In other words, according to this report, there is no “us” and “them” – just people in need of homes.

To make a proposal to build so many houses in this climate is radical. In attempting to create a property-owning democracy, Margaret Thatcher enabled tenants to sell their former council houses off, essentially creating an “underclass” of social housing tenant now viewed as the lowest of the low by other sections of the population. I’d hazard that many of the policymakers and media figures involved in this debate have barely socialised with anyone living in the social housing that has become so ghettoised over the years, so removed from its original purpose of being “a living tapestry for a mixed community” as to be unrecognisable.

Instead, council houses are scarce resources to be fought over by the desperate, with 1.15 million families on waiting lists. Even if you are deemed sufficiently in need to be granted a home, you may well find yourself labelled unworthy by the press and the public. Perhaps you are a single mother, or you have “too many” children. Not worthy. Perhaps you fled here from another country, or are on benefits. Not worthy. Or perhaps, like Kate Osamor, you succeeded in doing something amazing: becoming an MP despite the odds stacked against you. Not worthy.

But who is worthy, when poor people – that is, people without enough money – have become so demonised? How bad do things have to get in your life before the government can offer you warmth and rest and others will not begrudge you for it? This competing for the most basic of resources is not the country that William Beveridge and Nye Bevan envisaged when they embarked on their postwar housebuilding programme. It is not the sign of a healthy country.

Subjected to the “alien test”, the whole thing seems barbaric. The proverbial space traveller arrives and asks: “Where do the humans on this island live?” And you say, well, some people without enough money live on these estates, and the other people without enough money pay these other people, who have lots more money, to live in their houses, though they are often damp and smelly and not fit for habitation (which is not a legal requirement). And some of those people, the ones with the money and the houses, are our political representatives, and they decide whether or not we should build more affordable houses, or whether people carry on paying for ones that don’t need to meet certain habitable standards.

Three million council houses for England. Imagine how brilliant, if it is allowed to happen. Imagine what it says about us, as a country, as a community, as a people. How proud we could feel. We could look back and say, well, we got a bit lost back there, but now we are back on track. We forgot that a home is a home, and people are just people, but then we remembered, and we built some houses, to give them warmth, and rest.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author