Housing reforms: First as tragedy, then as farce

Note: I wrote this on 9th June, but I only post it now due to time pressure etc etc. So, our idiotic PM has finally resigned (albeit with twisted arms, allegedly). I don’t think there’s much to celebrate as what will follow is hardly going to be the saviour this burning pyre of a country needs, but anyway.

A small warning: Here come a few extremely dry entries on planning, housing, policy reforms and the looming shitstorm post-Brexit, Covid, and Russian war. They are massive topics upon which I can only scratch the surface so I will canter through them at great speed. They are also boring as hell but I need to document them somehow for future reference. Part of this project is to document a state taking a nosedive into perpetual crisis and if we ever have to do a post-mortem, it’s good to document things as they happen in real time.

I’ll write about some fun projects soon. I promise.

The Ubiquitous New Build.

I can barely bring myself to type his name these days. Every time I see his face in the media I feel my stomach churning. It goes beyond the visceral hatred of the man I felt a year ago, no longer can he evoke such strong negative emotions. Now I just feel sad. What a pathetic, odious, sad little man. An absolute non-entity. He’s too lazy and narcissistic to be anything really, just a hollow vessel channelling whatever he believes will save his skin and surrounding himself with equally weak, spineless acolytes, stupid yes-(wo)men who cannot stitch together a thought of their own. His party has been transformed from the old British Conservatives in the Burkian tradition or even from the ideologically-charged Hayekian Thatcherite party of the turbo neoliberals we are all suffering (or reaping if you happen to be one of the lucky few) the consequences into nothing more than a bunch of self-serving crooks. Probably at least half of them would be in jail if they didn’t have the Met Police eating from the palms of their hands.

Having alienated most of his own party, it seems our broken and crippled country is united in one thing only: hatred of our Prime Minister. Big business hates him. Small business hates him. Royalists hate him. Constitutionalists hate him. The Gaelic parties most definitely hate him. Most of the media, except the far-right Daily Mail and Daily Express, hate him – and even they have days when they turn against him. The centre-right, centre-left, centre, and left finally have one thing in common: they hate him too. He’s open game: celebrities and pundits can talk about how much they hate him live on BBC. Footballers, musicians, sports commentators, the big mainstream cultural heavyweights are openly contemptuous of him.

Labour seem to have taken largely a backseat and are letting the rest of the country do the Opposition work for them. Starmer is largely MIA on the pile-on against Johnson: instead of hammering in the final nails to the coffin, aside from his famously “forensic” (as the liberal press never tire of reminding us) PMQs, Starmer seems to be sitting back and focusing the ongoing witch-hunt against Leftists and obsessively reminding the world of the pariah status of Corbyn, while cranking up the pro-war rhetoric as we seemingly inch closer and closer to a full-scale global conflict.

I suppose, it’s a good thing that we still live in enough of a democratic society that crowds can boo the Prime Minister as he arrives to attend an event of national and historical significance of the (capital E) Establishment without getting thrown into jail or disappeared, but even so.

And this brings me to the actions of a sad and desperate man: Johnson’s announcement last week on Housing Reform for the UK.

Housing reforms: the tragic background
The background to all of this is certainly the vote of no-confidence, which he won so narrowly that it can hardly count as a victory. It has also put the Tory party in a difficult situation: with Johnson at the helm the chances of them losing the general election in 2024, a mere two years from now, is high. Johnson has managed to surround himself with as many sycophants as it takes to keep him in power, with the added bonus that most of those sycophants are on the Government payroll so the stakes are higher for them if they vote against their boss.

The country is plummeting headlong into disaster. Actually, more like a slow-motion train wreck – many of these catastrophes were openly discussed and debated in 2016 ahead of the Brexit referendum. So war in Ukraine affecting food supplies combined with a global pandemic happened exogenously but it does not take a genius to understand that something major was about to happen in the world and build in some resilience. The feeling of reaching breaking point, whether climate related, food supply related, breach of peace, or even pandemics have been discussed in scientific, economic, policymaking, health, tech and other fields for a long time now, and especially since 2008 financial crisis. Now all of these things seem to be coming to a head. Cost-of-living crisis has hit after a 12-year run of austerity where public services are largely derelict, and wages have stagnated while living costs (especially related to housing initially, and now food will be hit too) have soared.

Food costs, energy prices? External factors and not the fault of our government.
Low wages not matching cost of living, artificially inflated housing costs, housing market entirely tipped in favour of owners and landlords? The fault of the government.
Lack of real and progressive taxation to protect the poorest in society and ensure our public services can function properly? Most definitely the fault of the government.
Insufficient investment in renewable energy and interventions to secure cheap and reliable supply and divest from fossil fuels? Again, definitely the fault of the government.
Cheap, affordable public transport so people do not need to own cars and pay for extortionate and harmful petrol? Fault of the government bound by the fossil fuel lobby.
Proper food strategy to protect against price hikes (as in France) and shortages? Very much the fault of the government.

There seems to be a deep-seated fear among the right of a “wage-price spiral” à la the 1970s after the 1973 oil shocks and subsequent economic turmoil. However, this seems largely to be a knee-jerk reaction and not grounded in material economic reality. For a start, the unions were in a strong position to negotiate pay to match and exceed the soaring rates of inflation, which topped 24.24% in 1975 while pay rose by 35% in some sectors. Today, with unions significantly castrated since then, we could see inflation of up to 20% with zero wage increases (or maybe a token 1 or 2% to give us some scraps). This is a scary prospect. Grace Blakeley wrote a fantastic piece about this in the latest edition of Tribune, see here for further theoretical grounding and summary of the current predicament.

So, to sum up thus far:

The UK is ploughing headlong into a deep, long-term crisis. Not only economic as the costs of Brexit stack up, but also a crisis of legitimacy. The aftermath of having such a farcical government can only create monsters or at least a greatly diminished status globally. The breakup of the British Isles as Scottish independence and N. Irish loom large and near-certain break-up of the Commonwealth as New Zealand, Australia, Canada hold referenda after the Queen dies and clear statements to remove the Monarchy as Head of State by Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Belize, and Jamaica and surely others will follow. Barbados has already taken the step and become a fully-fledged republic, announcing in 2020 that it would remove the Queen as head of state (Rihanna for President! Just sayin’). In short, the terms of British imperialism are long overdue a negotiation, both globally and domestically within the British Isles.

Our PM, isolated and disliked by all except his closest acolytes, most of whom he has either bribed or blackmailed (possibly both), is clutching for straws.

So what does he do? Reach for the Thatcher songbook.

Except, the UK economy, political circumstance, unity, and society is on far shakier ground than it was in 1979 when Thatcher pushed through monumental social and economic reform. In no small part is the situation today in fact directly consequential to these sweeping reforms and the country has never really recovered from the shock.

The other major difference is that Thatcher was riding the winds of change at the time; she understood the Zeitgeist, grasped it, and helped to re-cast and re-mould how global capitalism is imagined in the UK. In Gramscian terms, she built hegemony. Things that nowadays appear to be just the way things are are in fact implementation of the neoliberal hegemony, the logic that pervades how we think, act, rationalise, exist.

Post-2008, this doctrine has largely lost legitimacy yet is still the dominant force shaping our lives. This has manifested itself through a legitimacy crisis of the entire political class. Boris Johnson, far less skilled, less intelligent, and lacking the imagination and vision that Thatcher had, is simply clutching at ideas that have already been translated into our everyday lives and have made them better for a select few, at the expense of the many. And the demos realise this.

Boris Johnson’s latest announcement is decades too late to impress anyone except rich professional landlords, too pathetic, too lazy. Worn and thin. Recalling Hegel’s first as tragedy, and then as farce. Or the late and great Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, where he poses that nothing new has happened since the 1990s in pop culture but also I suppose this translates to political thought, too. His core thesis is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I have to say, I tend to agree, and more forcefully by the day. Here is an excellent lecture of him talking about how everything today is a weak and diluted copy.

What exactly is he proposing to do?
In his speech on 9th June, he laid out that he wants to bring back the Right to Buy scheme. As outlined in my review below of John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams, this was without a shadow of doubt one of Thatcher’s most damaging policies with far-reaching effects that we are facing today. It is why I, and so many others who do not have family capital or a huge income, cannot get on the housing ladder.

1. Right to Buy

To recap, Right to Buy was a massive reform to privatise social housing stock and ensured that state-owned housing stock managed by local councils was sold off a rock-bottom prices to tenants. Of course, this created a whole new swathe of landlord class, and saw the private rental market boom and the numbers of private landlords soar. Rents, which had previously been set and controlled by local authorities, were now in the hands of the “market” – i.e no upwards cap, and guess what? They spiralled. No more affordable rent in this country.

In effect, this was a direct transfer of wealth from those who were on the housing ladder, from those who are not. This is a combination of generation (so, being born at the right time and getting lucky), and social class (those who already have family capital would be able to get on the housing ladder anyway). Cynically, this created an entire new class of Tory voters and staunch advocates of Thatcherism, among those who never would have dreamed of voting Tory (the party of landowners and aristocrats) previously. It moved a vast strata of the population from working-class to property-owning petty bourgeoisie. The downside of this was locking the class system more tightly and reducing opportunities for social mobility by tipping the previously somewhat level playing field.

2. Using Universal Credit to save for a deposit

OK. OK, OK, OK. Let’s tackle this one then. So, fair enough, it is a bit weird that housing benefit can only be used to pay rent and the cheque pretty much goes direct to the landlord.

However. It is well documented that Universal Credit is punitive and stingy, especially following the austerity reforms in 2017. It barely covers enough for absolute bare minimum of essentials. How in the good lord’s name will there be any left over for saving? If I can barely save because of the general costs of existing, student debt, cost of rent, running a car (old and battered one by the way, and I barely drive it nowadays), paying for my own professional development so I can stay relevant and employable in a fast-changing and stressful job market and I have a salary well above average in a city that is fairly low in terms of cost of living by UK standards, how on God’s green earth should someone on stingy scrappy Universal Benefits have anything left to put away? Are you going to put UC allowance up by 500% then Boris? No? Didn’t think so.

This is obviously pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Clearly, back to the old Thatcher playbook of personal responsibility. Not able to save money? That’s because you’re living an excessive lifestyle (if bread, milk, a roof over the head, a warm house, a car to be able to get to work to pay for the aforementioned things is excessive, then……yes? But otherwise, no, definitely no).

Certainly not a structural problem and a basic equation of shit wages and massive housing prices and (now) soaring living costs. Surely not.

And before we even discuss securing a mortgage, let’s talk about how big deposits need to be. Average property price now in the UK is, according to the PM’s speech, £278,000 (which is £24,000 higher than this time last year). To raise a 10% deposit, which is the absolute minimum for first-time buyers now and more and more frequently 15% deposit is required, you need to save around £28,000. Add to this solicitor fees, surveying costs and so on, to give a cautious estimate let’s say around £10-15K for that. In total then, a first time buyer in the UK is going to need savings of £40K to own their first home. Average (median) salary in the UK for all workers is currently £25,971. Let’s be generous and say £31,285 as the median for full-time workers only. Before tax obviously. So, in order to save a deposit, you basically need to put a way you ENTIRE salary for two full years straight. That means not buying food, paying for shelter, or living at all basically. Impossible. THIS is the real problem we have. It is not just down to supply and demand availabilities, but how houses are distributed and the link between this and housing prices.

3. Increase supply

Increase of flatpack buying, despite the fact that spiralling costs of materials and labour are causing offsite supplier to go bust at an alarming rate. While Covid created a backlog, the real culprit is surely Brexit with import tariffs on timber from Finland, Germany, Austria and Sweden causing an upward pressure on prices that was not there a couple of years ago.

As more suppliers file bankruptcy, the already stretched supply chain is pulled even further as demand by far outstrips supply. Costs, soaring due to inflation and material issues, are set to spiral.

Why is it a terrible idea?
1. We aren’t going to be building more
Boris Johnson wants housing authorities to replace houses they sell off. Not gonna happen. (Unlike Thatcher, who banned housing authorities from replacing them).
Cash flow issues – sell them at a discount, and with spiralling material and labour costs, aren’t going to be able to afford to replace them. Exacerbate housing crisis and even more housing shortages.

Also, with a recession looming, everyone knows the first thing to happen is construction companies down tools. I’m expecting a herd of white elephants galore between now and 2030.

2. Clear lack of consultation with enablers and actors
Apparently, mortgage lenders have not been consulted about using UC to contribute towards deposits.
Lenders not on board with using Universal Credit and nor are Housing Associations.
How hard is it to get a mortgage?! Need a permanent contract, taking relationship status into account etc etc.

3. Obsession with home ownership.
In Britain, under successive governments, there are only two options. Option one is tying a millstone around your neck and taking out a massive mortgage on a (likely) poor quality house (as most houses are in this country, new and old).
Option two is being extorted by landlords to live a (mostly) badly maintained and energy inefficient home with insecure tenancy agreements, constant reminders that the home is not yours, next to zero legal rights and paying a massive chunk of your monthly salary for the pleasure.  

Society has changed drastically since 1980s. For me, as for most in my generation. Work is increasingly insecure regardless of sector and we are expected to be increasingly flexible and mobile. Also, some of us want to be flexible and mobile. I likely won’t live in a nuclear family formation – housing policy of the UK is designed for. I still wake up every morning, as for the past xx many years, dreaming about leaving the UK for somewhere with a better climate, less deranged government (if such a place exists) and less stifling and claustrophobic class system. Less inward-looking and less booze-addicted (which I firmly believe is partially a product of the class system and masks the fact that everyone here is miserable to some degree). I don’t want the housing situation to define and force my hand when it comes to romantic relationships either. I do not want to feel or want anyone else to feel bound together by a shitty building.

Do I want to sacrifice my one life on this earth for several years and do nothing but work and save, in order to pay a massive amount of money for a crappy house that will cost a fortune to maintain and heat, will likely be outside the city centre so I’m forced to drive around to maintain any form of social life, and I will be saddled with for the rest of my life? No thanks.

What we need is rent reform, protection, and control. Landlords need to be held to account and renters need protection. Funny that the PM’s speech measures home ownership as success. He states that home ownership for 25-34 year olds in Britain fell since 2008 whereas it has risen in almost all other European countries. Although, he smugly points out, Britain is still ahead of France and Germany in terms of home ownership. BUT IT’S NOT A LEAGUE TABLE! France and Germany have laws in place to protect their rents. In Germany at least, as in the Nordic countries and possibly also France, it’s normal to rent long-term, for life even. Homeownership is NOT the be-all-and-end-all. The UK needs to get over this fixation and introduce other options that match the needs of a modern society.

4. The reforms do not actually address any salient issues
It seems to me that this announcement is just a dogwhistle to what’s left of the Tory supporters among the electorate and the most ardent of Thatcherites. Or, a distraction from a government sinking in its own shit, mired in scandal after scandal after scandal.

Should we worry?
My hunch is no, we should not. Or, we should continue to worry about the lack of intervention in a failing economic system, but the laissez-faire attitude is the real cause for concern, not these nothing-policies. The reforms will have exactly zero impact on a system that failed a long time ago.