A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a regional conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). My main focus was the Housing and Planning Bill, but during the discussion I was reminded of just how much collateral damage the housing crisis is causing. The NUT has been more dynamic than some other unions in linking the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes to its members’ pay and conditions. Making housing a ‘workplace issue’ is critical to developing the kind of national campaign that can not only successfully challenge the Housing Bill, but open a more general debate about housing policy.
Several teachers told the conference about how the housing crisis is affecting their lives, those of the children they teach, their parents and the communities they work in. Teachers, particularly those who are young, newly qualified and working in London (but in other cities too), face an almost impossible task finding and keeping a decent home they can afford, but which also allows them to manage the increasing burdens of their work. One described only being able to afford a shared room, an hour’s commute from her school and having inadequate space – never mind energy – to do her voluminous marking and preparation. This experience echoes that of many children living in poor, over-crowded accommodation where their families suffer the grinding financial, physical and emotional stress of poor housing. Like their teachers, the demands placed on pupils by our production-line education system are relentless and unforgiving. It’s hard enough if you’re adequately housed, almost impossible if you’re not. I’ve heard many teachers talk about children ‘disappearing’ from their classes overnight because their families have had to move suddenly, perhaps because they’ve been evicted by a capricious, greedy private landlord, or because a local authority has said they can only be rehoused in another area. An equally important, if more intangible, impact is how insecure, unaffordable housing destabilises local communities, weakening the continuity, networks and mutual support that are essential to any genuine concept of education.
Understanding this web of damage is essential to grasping how the impact of the housing crisis is spreading through every aspect of our society. The experience of teachers is matched by healthcare workers. There are additional comparisons in how the wanton commodification of housing is linked to the privatisation of other public services. The same predatory (emphasis on last syllable) forces that are carving up council estates are also setting up anti-union trust schools and gobbling-up NHS contracts. The Housing and Planning Bill threatens to destroy any concept of housing provision outside the vagaries of the market, but it doesn’t stop there. The Tories’ attempt to liquidate council housing is just part of a wider project to achieve what US activist-scholar Jay Arena has described as:
‘…(the removal of) an obstacle to the full spatial, cultural, political and economic emergence and maintenance of the neoliberal city.’
For all these reasons, the NUT has pledged its support for the national demonstration against the Housing Bill on 13th March.