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Is the home ownership model outdated, and ready for the dustbin of history?

The Peckwater Estate, Kentish TownLet us set the scene. You’re a Labour government, it’s 2015, and you’re tasked with tackling economic instability, and health and social problems on a scale not seen in living memory. You need a grand idea, a pillar of policy that states your long term vision, that gives everything you do afterwards solid foundation, and solves a broad range of social problems economic problems.

That centre-piece must be housing. From everywhere from the 20-something in the street, to the floor of TUC conference or what the Guardian calls the “defining economic issue of our time”, a radical housing policy can be One Nation Labour’s solution to inequality, social inclusion and economic stagnation. Just as ‘Education Education Education’ was to New Labour.

Just like those thriving in there early years in good schools, statistics show a child’s health, social and employment prospects are greatly boosted by living in stable communities and high quality housing. The alternative, living in enduring squalor will only lead to rapid social breakdown.

The trouble is, for those with families, or young people such as myself navigating the housing market, the three choices you have at the moment are all at one extreme or another.

First, home ownership. Many on the left will tell you – perhaps just a bit smugly – that we are a nation obsessed with home ownership. Many on the right will gloatingly say that is for good reason. It’s the embodiment of aspiration, they say, delivering individual prosperity stakeholding, prime values of neoliberalism.

And housing has become a market-led policy area. All parties, Labour included, have presented home ownership as an unequivocal positive. A mortgage is a good investment, they say, simply because its your name on the deeds. Though 2008 taught us that the best lies are always the simplest ones.

Home ownership is a virtue in itself, boosting your social status as well as your economic security. The best option of all, and the most popular choice for 80% of young people. But gradually it’s becoming mythological and distant. A myth sold to the working class. In modern day Britain, home owners are just as likely to be unemployed as than as social housing tenants. So why is home ownership portrayed as the more prosperous – and even more civilized – option? Just as recently as April 2013, home ownership statistically decreased in the UK for the first time in 100 years. Oh those poor libertarians, now despairing that the ‘property owning democracy’ is past its peak and on life support.

The left must capitalise on that despair, and tell the truth. Home ownership is outdated and can no longer – if it ever could – provide for the nation’s housing needs and the economic security of the many. After all, even the Smith Institute admit the UK is increasingly dominated by insecure employment, and high levels of personal debt. They say we have 1.4 million people who want to buy a home but probably could never afford one due to the modern day housing markets increasing volatility and tendency to produce negative equity, which plagues up to 800k homes in the UK today. Successive governments have tried to compromise and give first time buyers a helping hand. But not successfully or seamlessly. Gordon Brown’s flagship ‘staircasing’ was as undesirable as George Osborne’s ‘Help To Buy’ is potentially deadly. With demand outstripping supply many people have to look for alternative options or are taking drastic measures.

So the second alternative is private rental. But is this sector really an alternative? Interestingly, private tenants polled by Ipsos Mori perceive social housing as lacking choice, and to be confined to undesirable neighbourhoods:

Owning, in contrast, was perceived to offer control, freedom and financial prosperity in terms of being a good investment and something that can be passed on to future generations, although the biggest concern was the financial responsibility that comes with it. For social renters, the private rented sector was perceived to offer greater choice but this comes at a price. Two out of five (41%) social renters considered higher rents to be a disadvantage of renting privately.

How can Labour resolve the issues faced by home-dwellers in all three sectors? First, by liberalising planning law to kick start a massive affordable house building programme. Then instigate land reform, truly challenge perceptions, and make the case for social housing once more. And how about an equivalent social security protection for home owners to that which tenants get from housing benefit in the private and social housing sectors?

We also need to regulate the private rented sector. It’s dominated by damp, squalid, crowded conditions and rogue landlords. It’s also time to introduce rent controls – for extortionate rents hamper social mobility and bloat the UK benefit bill. It is a gross injustice that talented youngsters cannot consider moving to London and elsewhere to seek work because of rents at £250 a week and higher. Taxpayers foot the shortfall in workers wages, to line landlords pockets through housing benefit. And while this is being capped, without rent controls the poor will simply be forced out of ‘desirable’ areas.

To move forward, we need a cbhange of culture. And we need to establish just what our society wants from housing. Does we want homes to be to be status symbols on an every-man-for-himself racetrack? Or are we willing to embrace a new, collective, co-operative model where we provide housing for eachother? Where everybody shares in the ownership, management and prosperity of the homes we build. A renaissance of co-operatives & collective ownership would be a good move. It would outflank ‘right-to-buy’, which the romanticising Tories are doing their best to bring back.

Social housing currently has the highest rate of satisfaction (82 per cent), in spite of many social housing tenants being the most economically marginalised. Collectivising this sector would not only provide good quality homes, but the opportunity of a sense of ownership without the failed model of home ownership, itself only ever available to the more wealthy. Devolving power would enable social tenants to collectively shape the future of their own homes, just as homeowners have always been able to do.

It will require a greater degree of planning, and possibility the regionalization to cater for that of the department of communities and local government. But I’ve lived on my own in rented accommodation for seven years now: firstly in damp, infested bedsits with unscrupulous landlords and far too little money, and then in a social flat in the area I was born in. If we want to make decent, affordable accommodation a reality for the majority, which is surely what Miliband’s One Nation is all about, we could do worse than co-operative and collectivised housing.

One Comment

  1. A excellent and thought provoking offering Thomas.

    Where I take slight issue with you is in your last paragraph where you state;”If we are to make decent,affordable accommodation a reality for the majority”.

    We should make decent,affordable accommodation a reality for all!

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