No man is an island, but lots of English towns now are. It must be bloody awful and none of what follows in any way diminishes how miserable it must be when your house floods, but amidst the political welly-waving, some home truths are being missed. People who know are talking about how rivers and drainage systems have been neglected and the inevitable soggy consequences of building on flood plains. But even these issues, which have been warned about for years, don’t get to the heart of the matter which is the ideology of individualism that drives capitalism in general and the property market in particular.
In times of crisis, capitalism resorts to collectivism. Whether it’s ‘the war effort’, bailing out the banks, or bailing out flood waters, when the shit hits the fan, inveterate free-market individualists suddenly reach for government-led solutions. What they don’t want to acknowledge is that its craven ‘I’m allright Jackism’ that gets us into the mess. Housing policy is a graphic example. Every facet of the home ownership fetish feeds the social and economic isolation reflected in the property-porn and consumerism that obsesses the media and corporate worlds. Personal financial reward has also been used to sell energy efficiency products, but individual environmentalism is an oxymoron. I presume there are currently flooded homes that are also covered with solar panels, an ironic illustration that private efforts to produce renewable energy cannot solve the wider problem. By contrast, I’m sitting in a council flat that is part of a communal heating system. There’s always more heat and hot water than needed and the total bill last year was £160. A nice hot bath and horrible flooding are, or should be, part of the same conversation, but we can’t have it if we’re only thinking about ‘my house’. The cash nexus around property ownership completely distorts any sense that we are connected beyond the limits of our front doors – and that’s the way capitalism likes it. What interest do the privatised utilities have in mass producing renewable and cheaper energy? Similarly the establishment politicians may wax lyrical about ‘community spirit’, but once the crisis passes, it terrifies them.
Until, or unless, we can rethink our attitude to housing, we’ll keep getting wet. Council housing isn’t the only answer, but it provides a model that is. During its heyday, as well as shared heating, council housing has provided shared laundries, drying rooms, libraries, nurseries, repairs services, insurance, gardens, but above all, identity. The anti-social lobby create a caricature of any form of collective ownership as Stalinist conformity or a free-love commune. It doesn’t have to be either. Several generations of council tenants have lived conventional domestic lives, but with an awareness of their home, services and community being flood-proofed against the whims of the property market and hot-wired to allow the kind of long-term, collective, decommercialised planning and investment that are our only future.