I was recently as close as I’ve ever been to a ‘media storm’. On September 11th, Raquel Rolnik delivered the interim findings of her visit to the UK to investigate the adquacy of housing provision against a framework of international human rights. Among other things – and the item that grabbed the headlines – Ms Rolnik recommends the scrapping of the Bedroom Tax, but this was in the context of much wider criticisms of UK housing policy. The reaction of the government was ferocious, but instead of addressing the serious issues involved, Tory ministers resorted to personal abuse and smears. I would never do that. The pipsqueak Grant Shapps might know a bit about dodgy internet businesses, but he knows nine-tenths of bugger all about housing. Responding to the UN report, Shapps indulged in the age-old tactics of red baiting and xenophobia in an attempt to deflect attention from Ms Rolnik’s findings, which were based on meetings with a wide range of parties, including civil servants and ministers. However, unlike many of her ilk, Ms Rolnik didn’t only meet the establishment, but listened to some of the people who are directly affected by current policy. Her conclusions, pending a full final report in March 2014, offer a succinct description of the housing mess we’re in and provided a rare moment when the national media connected with something that really matters to the lives of millions.
I have no direct control over the United Nations, but I did have some behind the scenes involvement in the visit. About a year ago, I ‘complained’ to the UN about the rapidly deteriorating housing picture in the UK, particularly in relation to security of tenure. At the time, this felt like a futile gesture, particularly because, bad as things are here, they are far worse in other parts of the world. Despite this (and not as the result of me moaning), I later found out that the Special Rapporteur was planning to come to the UK and contrary to another Shapps lie, had received a formal invitation from the government to do so. Even until the visit took place, I was unsure if it would do any good, but I was fortunate enough to meet Ms Rolnik and her estimable assistant and they explained to me that the concept of human rights is based on the principle that standards should not be allowed to decline, even if they start at a relatively high position. One of the most pleasing things that the UN report makes clear is that historically, the UK has had a public housing policy to be proud of, but this has been seriously undermined by slavish neo-liberalism. The truth hurts, hence the rabid government reaction.
But hot off the press, I hear that Ed Millliband has announced that a Labour government will scrap the Bedroom Tax! This raises a number of questions, but a brief period of rejoicing is in order.