It’s not just London that has a housing crisis
Coverage of the housing crisis can be London-centric for two reasons: the media is increasingly based in London (the death of local papers exacerbates this) and the extreme figures, in terms of both homelessness and house prices, make for headline-grabbing figures.
But the housing crisis is complex, and takes many forms – there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people, and building more houses won’t solve the housing crisis in areas that already have a surplus of housing. In Liverpool, south Wales and much of the industrial north, whole streets of homes are vacant, but people still struggle to afford to even rent, as a recent study by Shelter shows.
Shelter’s report found 350,000 renters were at risk of eviction. News stories lead with the headline figures concerning Londoners, but the figures across the country are equally worrying. In the north west, 1 in 34 renting households in Halton are at risk, 1 in 38 in Bolton, and 1 in 43 in Tameside. In Peterborough, 1 in 35 renting households face eviction, and in Birmingham the figure is 1 in 47, a total of 3,960 households. Walking down your average street, the equivalent of one household on each side of the road is potentially at risk of being kicked out of their home.
As Shelter points out, rates of “possession” vary across the country: in certain areas, a higher proportion own their home rather than rent, so looking at the proportion of renters at risk of eviction makes more sense than looking at the proportion of the population in the same position. Far more people rent than own in London compared to the rest of the UK, so the overall rate of eviction in renting is much higher because the proportion of renters is higher.
But the figures also expose one of the fallacies of the housing crisis: the relentless focus on London perpetuates the idea that this is a problem solely anchored in the south east. Claiming that is so lets you argue it’s simply a case of supply and demand: there is higher demand for property and rental accommodation in London, so prices are naturally higher. That’s how markets work – it’s simple.
Except it isn’t that simple: across Britain, people are facing a crisis in housing and in basic pay. Headlines about the collapse of BHS and the horrific conditions at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct have understandably shocked people, but these aren’t mere consequences of one or two rogue businessmen, but the symptoms of rapacious capitalism. The women in the Sports Direct warehouses who went into labour at work did so because work has become precarious, and zero-hours contracts have been allowed to bloom, because of government attacks on workers’ rights both under Labour and, to an increased degree, under the Tories.
If you’re on a zero-hours contract, you’re forced to scrabble for any work possible to pay your rent, accepting conditions most salaried people would walk out over. If you want to take your employer to court for sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or for forcing you out when you announced your pregnancy, you now have to pay to do so. The poorest have been denied justice, as well as decent pay and conditions.
Cuts to benefits, the cataclysmic farce of the universal credit rollout, and the assault on support for disabled people mean that, post-recession, people who struggle to earn a decent wage are denied basic support. The housing crisis is an affordability crisis, but not one that solely lies in the cost of London flats: people across the country simply can’t afford to live. Rents in the north west are lower, but pay is lower still. Geographic inequalities have worsened post-recession, and many areas feel as though they’ve been left behind.
The housing crisis is everywhere, because pay, benefits and working conditions have worsened or been cut. Attacks on unionisation and government defences of zero-hours contracts will do nothing but fuel an already blazing fire. This is a nationwide crisis, because it’s a crisis of capitalism: as long as we subsidise companies for paying poverty wages, whilst blaming low earners for their own poverty, nothing will change.
Author: Dawn Foster for the Gaurdian
Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian