We need a bold new type of NHS – the National Housing Service

·5-min read
The New Era housing estate in east London (Getty)
The New Era housing estate in east London (Getty)

At some point, we are going to have to admit that the British dream has failed. If the American dream is about the equality of opportunity based on individual goals, its British equivalent is our addiction to homeownership and the way in which aspiration has become synonymous with bricks and mortar.

In Britain, your social value is largely judged by whether or not you’re on the housing ladder; it is a status symbol and a class indicator. But it needn’t be this way. This isn’t some communist call to arms, demanding that the state seize all property, but I certainly will make the case (as many mystifyingly avoid it altogether) that no conversation concerning poverty and inequality can be serious if it does not attempt to include and tackle this country’s social housing crisis.

The time has come for a bold new type of NHS – the National Housing Service. Not free at the point of access, but a promise that no family or individual will be forced to rely on private landlords for the very basic human right of having a roof over their heads. Social housing shouldn’t be looked down upon; on the contrary, it should be championed. It is a vital public asset of which we should be proud of, fund and protect. But for too long it has been neglected and, dare I say, stigmatised, so that many are embarrassed to merely mention it.

The degradation of social housing is a national scandal and a shameful chapter in our history. Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme set the ball rolling but subsequent governments have wilfully allowed it to continue and get even worse. Our communities have to be built back from the ashes and the country needs to be reminded that people hold a stake in society regardless of whether or not they own a home. Everyone deserves a safe, secure and comfortable place to live.

The idea that “levelling up” is about public transport is beyond a joke and reveals the timidity of modern British politicians. That they’d much rather openly concern themselves with the price of bus tickets than propose a bold vision for social housing is frankly embarrassing.

In Greater Manchester there has been an increase of 49,000 households on the social housing waiting list between 1997 and 2019. On a wider level, statistics show that nearly 8 million people in England have some form of housing need and of those, 3.8 million would benefit from social housing. More than 1 million people are currently on waiting lists for social housing and of those, some will wait more than two decades – many more will never be housed. These people are destined to a life of insecurity and are forced to pay private landlords for the honour. According to the charity Shelter, “by 2040, as many as one-third of 60-year-olds could be renting privately, facing unaffordable rent increases or eviction at any point”.

Are we willing to live in a country in which councils and housing associations have the right to tell a couple with two boys and a girl all aged under 10, living in a one-bedroom flat, that they wouldn’t count as overcrowded under the “room standard” because technically they could sleep in their living or dining area?

The government currently spends £21bn a year giving housing benefit to needy recipients as opposed to building social homes. Of course, this makes landlords wealthier and renters poorer, opening a massive disparity within our own towns and cities. We discuss the cut to the universal credit uplift and how it creates hardship, while forgetting what it really means – that almost two-thirds of private renters have no savings at all and that one in five private renters cuts back on food to pay the rent.

The food poverty crisis is a direct symptom of the housing crisis. Many will never have the ability to save for a deposit for a privately owned home but that needn’t be an issue if, as a country, we spoke about the benefit of secure, publicly owned homes. The biggest myth that we have been sold is that aspiration and achievement can only flourish in suburbia with a debt agreed by the bank.

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Looking through my grandparents photo album I’m reminded of my favourite picture of them. In the Sixties they secured a property on a new council housing estate. They have the biggest grins and are holding each other tight, looking at each other as if to say “we’ve made it”. There they made a home, brought up their two daughters (one of whom went to university) and one granddaughter (me). When my grandmother died last year she was the last of the “originals” on her street. But, alas, the place looks quite depressingly different now. The most desperate in society can’t be the only ones left in these areas. For a community to thrive it requires a mixture of people, backgrounds, cultural capital and wealth. Of course, that can only happen when we build more homes. And I suspect, as the housing crisis gets worse, whereby more and more professionals are affected, they will ask themselves if homeownership is the great emancipator we’ve been led to believe.

I’m guessing this article isn’t one for most Tories. After all, a quarter of these MPs are private landlords, including our own PM – Boris Johnson puts his cottage on the rental market for £4,250 a month – but the time has come for those on the left to be bold. This could be their big chance to say something different, interesting and important. This conversation will gain momentum in years to come whether they speak up or not but it will be achieved a lot quicker with their help.

Put your head above the parapet and admit that social housing matters and could change this country’s future. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that this country looked a great deal better when social housing was in abundance. Right to Buy and handing over ownership of homes to housing associations has been massively detrimental – it’s time we faced up to that fact.

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