|Your brother? Your son? Your daughter? You?|
|Communities Secretary Sajid Javid MP|
Javid went on to detail the litany of disaster most of us are more than familiar with - average house prices are now 7.5 times average annual salaries; mortgages frequently swallow up over half of household income; fewer and fewer young people can get affordable rented property never mind snatch hopelessly at the cruel illusion of home ownership. The result is stay-at-home offspring remaining in the family home into their late twenties and early thirties, jobs away from home being unaffordable because of the inability to rent and the formation of new household by young couples frequently delayed or even frustrated.
|Buy-to-let sector: source of rocketing homelessness?|
For those too young to remember, much of our housing crisis was brought on very predictably by the Thatcher Government's determination to destroy council housing. First of all came the tax-payer subsidised "right to buy", whereby hundreds of thousands of council tenants were deceived into home ownership that sooner or later saw most of the sold stock resold into the hands of private rental agencies.
Next came the effective blocking on councils from building new council housing or even using the receipts from sales to maintain the stock that remained - for years, several billions pounds sat frozen in bank accounts. Housing associations, originally small community enterprises providing cheap, niche accommodation to vulnerable groups, were effectively taken over, forced to expand with central-government provided Housing Corporation money and then driven to become in effect large faceless companies far removed from their original purpose.
Then finally came the coup de gras: large scale transfer of remaining council housing to large scale housing companies, notionally not-for-profit but, as government funds were reduced and housing groups grew ever larger, functioning more and more like big private landlords. In some places, housing trusts were created by effectively hiving off and privatising the local council housing department as an ALMO (arms-length-management-organisation), which was great news for the bank balances of some transferring senior staff, but not so good at all for the lower paid staff, eventually shorn of their council terms and conditions, and most of all of little use to tenants and their communities.
Chuck into the mix the deregulation of the private rental sector - last year, the Tories passed a law that removed any requirement for private landlords to ensure their properties are fit for habitation - and the advent of previously banned buy-to-let mortgages, now almost one in five of new loan approvals, and the stage was indeed set for housing apocalypse.
|Bullion blocks in the sky - empty new flats in London|
Unsurprisingly, this callous disregard of the real needs of real people has meant more human beings chasing fewer properties actually available to rent or buy, inflating prices massively. It is a process that the state even subsidises, exempting these often large scale property investors from full council taxes.
And so, Britain's 700,000 empty properties are no surprise, but no less an obscenity because of it. With official homelessness figures soaring and migrants the appalling and false scapegoat for the greed-is-good mentality that infects our developers and our elite, Javid's admission of market failure, while disarmingly honest, is nevertheless not exactly news. And his white paper leaves almost none of the real problems tackled - no action on empty homes, nothing to end the scandal of tax-advantaged buy-to-let loans or to break up the now huge housing corporations that dominate the "affordable" housing sector. People on even above average incomes will remain mired in debt, genuinely struggling the keep roofs over their heads and those of their families.
And, of course, more and more no longer have roofs over their heads; 250,000 people - a quarter of a million - in England alone are homeless and many really, truly have nowhere to go and are sleeping rough as a result.
He is one of many. Like Chris, whom I encountered, shaking from cold this afternoon in Leeds, or a street away last month John, who was curled up in a blanket outside HMV, his wispy beard, bedraggled hair and sunken cheeks giving the appearance of a dying Jesus, discarded on the edge of the crowds doing their shopping.
And so too with the many others who have silently come back onto previously empty streets over the last four or five years. If you look, you will see them, the young couple crying on the steps of an empty bank in New Street in Birmingham, both not long out of care, with no money and no food. Or Brian huddled on the ground in the rain under his umbrella with his dog on a Sunderland street; or the young man on a back stairwell in Edinburgh, thrown out when his mother was evicted and
apologising to everyone he shyly asked for a few coins to help him.
All of them are there - many of them terribly young, and all with the same desperate stories, the utterly unwarranted shame in their voices, their pale, paper-thin sunken cheeks and their sad, sad eyes. Bedding down on concrete pavements on the streets of the fifth richest country on planet Earth. And the second most unequal in the western world - a country where there are nearly three empty homes for every homeless person.
It's not just Javid's housing market that has failed. It is our whole, corrupt capitalist economy and the twisted society it has forged on its own fantasies where freedom is money and money is freedom. This week, its custodians have finally admitted that the edifice is crumbling. When the whole rotting structure comes tumbling down, as it soon will, we must be ready to build anew - not just buildings and economic systems, but lives, homes and dreams too.