In my 26 years working and campaigning on the subject, I’ve never known housing get so much political and media attention. This level of concern is long overdue. It’s just a shame it took the deaths of innocent people at Grenfell Tower for it to happen. For years, the establishment has turned a blind eye to the plight of millions struggling to find or keep a roof over their heads. This chasm between political action and social concern has been one of the clearest signs of our democratic deficit.
Grenfell changed that. It’s not a permanent state of affairs, but for now, housing is politically important and sensitive. Time will tell whether this actually changes anything. But the demand of decent, secure, truly affordable and safe homes for all is part of securing Justice for Grenfell – and we may not get a better chance of winning it.
The ultimate proof that housing inequality has hit the middle England mainstream is The Archers. The everyday story of country folk is currently doing a pretty decent job with a story-line that highlights how the crisis is spreading through the country, up the social ladder and blighting people’s lives and communities.
I should perhaps out myself as a committed Archerite. I tend to listen to the omnibus in the gym, desperately hoping I’m never exposed as training to cows mooing instead of high-energy garage. I often struggle to remember who’s who and have an additional confession that my favourite character is Brian Aldridge. But while I’m at it, I like Hugh Grant too!
The housing plot revolves around a proposed new development in Archer-land. A property developer wants to build a relatively small number of homes on formerly agricultural land. This has unleashed a host of tensions and conflicts in Ambridge, most of which ring true.
Predictably, there’s the NIMBY question. Some of the better-off residents oppose any new homes in their rural idyll. This is an issue that underlies a lot of housing policy impotence and inertia in the “real” world. Politicians in many parts of the country are petrified of any appearance of “concreting over” the countryside or green-belt. Lynda Snell, a vocal Ambridge resident, has articulated another fear of new development: that the homes will be bought by “part-time resident strangers with lives elsewhere”.
This aversion to new housing development is not a luxury afforded to people living in cities, but in any event, is based on a false argument. Only a fraction of the UK land-mass is devoted to housing. It would take a lot more than Justin Elliot’s scheme in The Archers to turn Ambridge into Singapore.
Stopping landowners building homes wherever they like is why we have a system of planning control, albeit one that is much abused. The Archers gave a good snap-shot of how developers use self-serving, dishonest tactics to get what they want. The Ambridge Parish Council was presented with seductive arguments that come close to emotional blackmail. In a typical manoeuvre Damara Captial, the shadowy developer, used the promise of affordable housing to get backing for its plans, enlisting the support of Emma, one of the locals in housing need.
If The Archers reflects reality, Emma will be betrayed and disappointed. The term “Affordable Housing” has become so misused that it should always be placed in parenthesis. It’s tragic to hear Emma pinning her hopes for the future on a lottery. Damara are out to maximise profits, which means minimising the number of homes that aren’t sold at full market prices. Once they’ve got planning permission, they’ll use a new string of bogus arguments to pretend that homes that Emma might be able to afford are “unviable” (an issue recently addressed by Channel 4 News, with a cameo appearance by me).
The new homes in Ambridge have created divisions within the community and sadly, that’s also a feature of our housing malaise. The elevation of housing as a commodity and signifier of social status is exploited by those who have no interest in solving the problem. We need to take back control of housing and planning policy from the likes of Damara Capital. After Grenfell, we need to drive the profiteers out of our homes.