Britain: The Housing Question - Part Three

We conclude Dan Morley's three part study of the crisis inside UK housing.

Right to Buy

The situation with Right to Buy (RTB) is not much different. Just as government siphons off rents and does not reinvest them, so it siphons off the capital receipts (which have been hugely subsidised by government for decades in a crude attempt to bribe tenants into buying their homes, doing unknown amounts of unnecessary damage to government finances) from 'right to buy' sales. Councils have lost literally millions of homes to the market, at knock down prices, and haven't even seen any of this admittedly limited amount of money! This policy has now been finally overturned, but only after almost 30 years of hidden damage.

Of course RTB is dressed up as the liberation of the working class, signaling their emergence into the amorphous middle classes. We are also told that it was an extremely clever tactic of Thatcher, because she managed to create a large pool of middle class aspiring workers now ready to vote Tory. People who say this have bought into the myth that wealth is created by individuals speculating on the rising 'value' of their home.

There is little or no evidence that significant numbers of these people started voting Tory. In the 1980s Terry Fields, the Militant Labour MP, was elected in a constituency with a particularly high number of RTB leaseholders. Just before the miners strike, the Guardian claimed that miners would not strike because so many of them had mortgages! Of course, having a debt burden where there wasn't one before does to an extent have a 'disciplining' effect on workers, just like student loans do for students. In that sense it is a setback for the working class.

Thatcher was never elected by the working class, but at best by their abstention from voting Labour. And the general effect of RTB has been to depress the working class and the Labour movement, especially the tenants’ movement, because it was recognized as a defeat for the working class. The defeat of the miners in 1985 has not ended the labour movement, nor did it herald an era of triumphant middle class individualism. No - it depressed the labour movement and handed the ideological initiative to the bourgeoisie, who have merely been declaring the rise of universal middle class individualism. Of course, an individual may apply for RTB and make a quick buck or two, and be quite pleased with themselves. But they remain working class, and nevertheless this is not the general picture, which has instead been the crippling of council housing for the working class.

Mostly those who carry out a RTB are acting for short term gain that does not take them out of their conditions or give them the ability to realise any aspiration for middle class status. They are often conned by property companies, who have also used the law for their benefit, as Polly Toynbee points out:

“One evening a leaflet came through the door from an estate agency/finance house. 'Are you a council tenant? Have you ever considered giving up your tenancy? If so you could earn between £6,000-£26,000.' I called them up, pretending to be a long-term resident and said I was considering moving out. 'It would be silly to give up your tenancy for free when you could make money instead, wouldn't it?' said a silky voice. He explained the deal: I would apply for the right to buy, his company would put up the cash and by law I would be able to sell it to them in three years time. Until then for the next three years I would assign them a lease and they would let it out, (for £180 a week, instead of my £59 a week rent.)

“How much is the flat worth, I asked? £83,000 he said, but the council was presently only valuing them at £78,000. Because of the generous discount, it would only cost me £39,000 to buy. A fantastic bargain: you couldn't buy a garden shed in the area for that. So, I asked, how much would I make out of this deal? £7,000 said the silken voice. For giving up a lifetime's right to a flat in London, that was a scandalous offer. But it is the offer thousands of hard-pressed tenants are accepting. Either they don't know any better or else they are in such desperate debt that £7,000 seems like an answer to their prayer - though they will never, ever get another council flat. All this is totally legal. Housing officers report thousands of people cheated shamelessly out of their homes, their rights and a lot of money this way. I discovered the true worth of the flat was in fact £150,000, which I would be relinquishing for a mere £7,000. Right to buy may often be a leg-up for the upwardly mobile, but it is often a crash down into homelessness for the most vulnerable and gullible. Lambeth alone lost 800 properties last year through right to buy, and has already sold another 800 this year.”

This also shows how any backdoor privatisation always corrodes the principle of social provision. And government subsidies to lubricate the wheels of privatisation, which is what RTB really is, simply lead to inflation. Because instead of building new council homes and in the process creating new value, money is effectively handed to property companies to simply take over and sell on already existing (and deteriorating) housing.

Today our country has enormous visible scars in the form of deteriorating and scarce housing and unemployment. Massive regional inequalities in wealth, jobs, health and education stalk the land. Although this marks the impasse of British capitalism, it is to the benefit of capitalists. In this respect, RTB and the principle of working class 'home ownership' has had a large role to play. Because home ownership atomizes the working class it also ties workers down 'to the land', thus weakening bargaining power as jobs leave but workers stay. Of course, the only real solution to this is to plan production and employment, breaking down regional tensions and inequalities. But tying workers to one place with artificially atomized home ownership in the midst of council estates weakens bargaining power, driving down wages and leading to the constant and gradual deterioration of whole regions.

We are sold the myth that council tenants are 'dependent'. But the power of the working class and its ability to take society forwards is in its mutual interdependence. Contrary to what the Thatcherites assert, society does exist to the point that we can study its laws of development and predict its future - as the demographic studies we saw earlier so clearly show. The bourgeoisie wrongly imagines that independence means the freedom of the individual to, say, buy their council house. But genuine independence means to understand the laws of society, so that we can understand what really is possible, instead of blindly succumbing to necessity. When an individual is compelled through external circumstances not under their control to buy their home to make a quick buck, whilst at the same time we know that the only affect of this is to cripple social housing and inflate house prices, we can definitely say that both the individual and society are not free or independent, but that we remain thoroughly dependent, helpless and blind to social laws. But it has not always and need not be this way.

Workers have fought for council housing. The first housing law and plan of council housing in the 1920s was described as a measure 'against bolshevism' by ministers at the time. They had to grant it because workers demanded it. And it marked an enormous step forward, often giving workers running hot water and indoor bathrooms, as well as security of tenure, for the first time. In the 70s the tenants’ movement successfully defeated Tory rent hikes. Today council tenants vote against stock transfer and according to Shelter most people list affordability and security of tenure ahead of the aspiration to own a home as their priorities. The looming housing disaster (in truth it is already with us) and its disastrous affects on poverty, health, education, employment and racism demands a plan of socialised housing as part of a more general plan for the economy.

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