Socialist Worker

No place like home?

Two recent government reports have pointed to the crisis in housing. Stirling Howieson looks at the problems and what can be done

Issue No. 2040

 (Illustration: Tim Sanders)

(Illustration: Tim Sanders)

A recent report looking at newly built homes found that a startling 40 percent were of a poor standard and that just 8 percent of the developments could be classed as good or very good. Why is it that in the 21st century we still do not have decent homes?

The report was compiled by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), a public body charged with advising the government on architecture, urban design and public space.

The criteria that they used to judge housing quality concentrated on vague factors such as design character, pedestrianisation, environment and community.

Important and objectively measurable factors such as a dwelling’s energy efficiency and carbon output were not reported, as the developers refused to respond to CABE’s requests for information!

Builders of course do not want to spend money increasing energy efficiency.

This is the horrible dilemma that faces New Labour. It is prepared to rely almost exclusively on the market to deliver new dwellings, but it also knows that the market – if left to its own devices – will produce the cheapest and nastiest little boxes that it can get away with.

This report shows that even with “agreed shared goals”, volume builders continue to put profit before public good.

The role of CABE is thus reduced to taking dubious measurements and publishing facile reports, in a vain effort to shame these companies into making more “welcoming places”.

But as usual, the government and its advisory panel miss the point. The volume builders can do what they like – because they own the land.

Land prices have gone through the roof over the last two decades as planning authorities (under pressure from such bodies as English Heritage – the BANANA brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone!) restrict housing “zones” or delay development applications, with the knock-on effect of increasing house price inflation.

When they do release land, it is land that no one wants because it is invariably situated on a flood plane and will be under water in 50 years. Now where does deputy prime minister John Prescott want to build his £60,000 homes?

The plot of land can therefore be more expensive than the dwelling to be built on it. Thirty years ago the average house price was three times the average salary. It is now close to ten times the average salary.

Even a mortgage of five times a person’s salary will not allow them to get on the first rung of the housing ladder in most cities.

This “artificial” shortage has trebled the real price of new housing, without any measurable increase in quality or space standards. Indeed, if CABE is to be believed, things are actually getting worse.

The government claims that it wants all new homes to be “zero carbon” (carbon nuetral) rated by 2016 – a wildly optimistic aspiration that will require a step change in technology and insulation standards.

Yet, at present, its toothless quango CABE cannot even persuade the industry to meet the most modest standards.

In the face of this indifference, intransigence and profiteering from the private sector what does Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, come up with to solve the housing crisis?

Let’s throw people out of the few remaining council houses by ripping up their secure tenancy agreements if they cannot demonstrate that they are living in abject poverty, she says.

A report produced by Professor John Hills and published last week states, “The ability to move ‘empty nest’ couples or single people might be a way of reducing overcrowding.”

It concedes that the possible loss of a secure tenancy would be “controversial”, but adds that such a move will “make better use of very scarce and pressured resources”.

The housing crisis is not new. It is an integral part of capitalism. The “market” has never been able to house the working class in decent homes.

In 1887 the revolutionary Frederick Engels addressed these problems succinctly in a pamphlet entitled The Housing Question.

It said, “In present day society, the housing question is settled just as any other social question – by the economic levelling of demand and supply, a settlement which reproduces the question itself again and again and is therefore no solution.

“But one thing is certain – there is already sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real housing shortages, provided they are used judiciously.

“This can naturally occur through the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers overcrowded in their present homes.”

Let’s start by counting the rooms lying empty in the royal palaces.

For more on housing go to Housing campaigners crank up heat on the government

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Sat 3 Mar 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2040
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