“No single piece of legislation has enabled the transfer of so much capital wealth from the state to the people,” said Michael Heseltine, in 1980. “There is, in this country, a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership.”
He was speaking in his role as Minister for the Environment, charged with implementing the Right to Buy initiative that, less than a year into Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, was passed as part of the Housing Act of 1980. Ostensibly, it offered secure tenants of councils and some housing associations the legal right to buy the home they were living in at a large discount. While viewed alongside the Poll Tax as the defining policy of her time in office, Thatcher was at first reluctant to commit to Right to Buy, concerned that her government would be selling off potentially valuable assets for far below market value.
Since the initiative was launched, Britain has slid down the ranks when it comes to the percentage of the population that are homeowners. We’re now in 27th place, out of 37 countries, sitting pretty behind Mexico, Romania and Croatia, the latter of which overtook Britain despite enduring five years of brutal civil war during the same period.
Before Thatcher was in office, it took the average family three years to save enough money for a deposit; the average is now over twenty years. According to a recent article in The Independent, if the cost of meat had increased at the same rate of inflation as the housing market, a chicken would now cost £51.
We’re currently battening down the hatches for Theresa May’s shotgun general election, where the political sphere will once again become caught in the crossfire of political hot-buttons and double-talking. More than ever, it’s during these occasions that certain phrases become white noise. I, for one, am twitching to cut my own ears off whenever I hear the words “strong and stable”.
The same can easily be said for the housing crisis. Perhaps through apathy, perhaps through a lack of understanding, or perhaps even due to more nefarious reasons, the housing crisis in Britain has become one of those issues that everyone talks about, but no one really seems to understand. More importantly, no one – politically, at least – has done anything about it. It’s the uncomfortable armchair that’s been passed from generation to generation, government to government, since Crazy Old Auntie Maggie first decided to buy it.
While complex and differing in each part of the country, the housing crisis can be summed up in six parts: home ownership is becoming increasingly unattainable; housing costs are unreasonably expensive; more families are renting from private landlords; not enough new homes are being built; too many existing properties remain vacant, and the levels of homelessness are rising.
Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain), the director of the new documentary Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, has little doubt that the ongoing crisis stems from the administrative failures of Thatcher’s policy. “Successive governments since the seventies have failed, in various ways, to manage the supply of homes in both the public and private sector,” he says. “The biggest cause in this respect was the failure to replenish the housing stock sold off via Right to Buy. It’s the main reason why there’s not enough social housing today.
“In some parts of the UK, people are spending between fifty to seventy per cent of their income on rent due to the lack of affordable housing. In other countries, the amount people spend on rent is around a third of the average income. So the consequences are that people have less money to spend on food, household bills and other essentials. They have no spare money. The rise in the use of food banks is down to low wages, the removal of benefits, and the high costs of rent. Millions of people are struggling day in, day out, because the cost of their rent is far too high. And that’s due to the inability of the private rental market to provide truly affordable housing.”
Most alarmingly, it seems like very little is being done to address the issue. Lisa McKenzie, the Nottingham-born sociologist and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, was involved with Dispossession... from its conception. She says “[the social housing crisis] has become a monster that no one dare touch.
“Rents need capping, empty properties – whether public or private – need taking back into housing stock. Legislation is needed to prevent overseas investors from buying up property they don’t intend to live in. None of the political parties will touch any of this. Instead, they give out magical numbers of housing building, plus the fairytale that we can be wealthy through property, but without touching the core problems of buy-to-let property investors, empty buildings, and poor landlords. Numbers mean nothing.”
While Thatcher’s Right To Buy lit the torch paper for the crisis, subsequent governmental schemes have further sunk Britain’s current and potential homeowners into the quagmire. These policies have prevented local councils and housing associations from building homes for the 1.4 million people on council housing waiting lists, and the amount of homelessness has risen to an estimated quarter of a million.
The Housing and Planning Act, passed in 2016, has seen the beginning of the end to council housing as we know it. Exploring the impact of such policies on the lives of individuals who are fighting to save their homes and preserve their communities from the effects of gentrification and social cleansing, the documentary focuses on the neglect, demolition and regeneration of council estates in London, Glasgow and Nottingham. It examines the human cost of the housing crisis, with unprecedented access to residents, politicians and experts in the housing industry and media.
“I brought Paul Sng to Nottingham and Mansfield,” says McKenzie. “I wanted to show him the situation here;” says McKenzie, “the rising of private rents, and the hollowing out of communities like Lenton, which is purely a student neighbourhood with empty homes for half of the year. Although Nottingham is not one of the worst offenders, I know the council are as interested in courting private development to the city in the same ways that London and Manchester have, and that will only lead to property developers speculating on the city.”
Director Sng saw a pattern in Nottingham that mirrored the rest of Britain: “A lot of housing stock has gone, due to Right to Buy. Housing waiting lists have increased, which results in an increased reliance on the private sector and means that landlords can call the shots on who they lease their properties to. This impacts on the most vulnerable people, who find it harder to find a secure home.
“I have family and friends who live in council housing in London, in areas that are very close to zone one, so I worry how stable their homes are and how they might end up far from family and support networks if they’re forced to relocate.
“Social cleansing is a very emotive term, but it’s certainly what we’re seeing more and more of in London and other inner-city areas. Working-class communities in cities like London will be a thing of the past if local authorities continue to demolish council estates and fail to rehouse the people who live on them in the new developments. The story of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is a good example. The stats tell the story: 1,034 social rent homes demolished; 2,704 new homes built; number of homes available at social rent in the new development: 82.”
If Conservative, Labour and coalition governments have all spectacularly failed to deal with the increasingly desperate housing crisis, is there any hope of a solution? And, if so, can a film like Dispossession... have the same impact of raising awareness as I, Daniel Blake? The Big Issue’s Adrian Lobb described Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner as "Perhaps the most important British film”.
“It’s important in the sense that it will help raise some awareness, but to have a real impact you need to show something on television, or find a way to reach a mass audience via the internet,” says Paul. “An Inconvenient Truth had a massive impact, as did Cathy Come Home fifty years earlier. But this is a small, independent film and its impact will be limited until we get it out there to a mass audience.
“Real change relies on a collective effort, and it’s always hard to convince the majority of people to act in a unified way if what they’re doing doesn’t benefit them directly. A lot of people don’t see the destruction of social housing as a critical issue. The Tories would seemingly rather run council housing into the ground so that it exists only for the most desperate, which is not what it was intended for, nor the purpose it should serve. As long as the majority of people pursue the dream of owning their own home, and the Tories remain in power, the number of council homes will continue to reduce.”
McKenzie seems equally pessimistic about the possibility of change coming from the government, whoever is in power. Instead, she says that real change will come from people “forming groups that are independent of political parties, as they co-opt housing activism into their own political agenda. Housing is about community and any fightback must come from those who have a stake in that. My advice is to keep out of all party politics. You will be sacrificed when they disagree with you.”
Dispossession is screening at Broadway Cinema on Friday 16 June at 6.30pm, and will be followed by a Q&A panel featuring Paul Sng, Lisa McKenzie, Luke Doonan (Executive Producer), all hosted by Daniela Scotece of POW Nottingham.
Dispossession Film website