Can an affordable housing campaign funded by the people who cause the crisis be legit?
It's time to stop worrying about the housing crisis, everyone. That's because yesterday, in central London, the public took to the streets for what was billed as the "biggest housing rally ever", 2,500 people descending upon Westminster Central Hall to watch a choir sing "Our House" by Madness. Owen Jones gave a speech. Nigel Farage gave a speech. There was a samba band. And at one point, an 8-metre inflatable house was floated just above Hampstead Heath to show that homes are – wait for it – "out of reach" for many.
The "Homes for Britain" campaign, which the rally was in aid of, is calling for all politicians to commit to ending the housing crisis, which would be pretty great had they not given the politicians quite a lot of leeway – an entire generation's worth of leeway, in fact, so the chances are you'll either be too old or too dead to want any kind of home other than a bungalow or a coffin.
Another surprising thing is that everyone's calling it the "biggest housing rally ever". Yes, 2,500 people went along, but the March For Homes rally, held in January, attracted approximately 5,000.
Weirdest of all is who the campaign's been endorsed by. As well as the usual assortment of left-wing celebrities, housing workers, political parties and trade unions are – wait for it – bodies representing vengeful landlords, gentrifying local councils and property development sharks.
This is Dracula organising the blood transfusion service
The seven main backers funding Homes for Britain include the Residential Landlords Association – that is, the body that represents the interests of the guy charging you half your salary to live in a place where the living room has been converted into a bedroom. When they're not busy solving the housing crisis, their other campaigning activity includes making sure that "Revenge Evictions" – where you could get kicked out of your home for complaining about your broken shower – are still allowed to happen. Great to have you on board, guys.
Other backers include various bodies representing people getting rich off housing, such as the Home Builders Federation – the trade body for the kind of property developers that have been consistently trying to decrease their affordable housing obligations while building gated developments, or putting so-called " poor doors" into their social housing.
All of which adds up to this: an anti-housing crisis campaign, funded, backed and run by the people who cause it. Can such a setup ever be legit? I decided to speak to some people who have been campaigning about housing to see what they thought.
First up, I spoke to Glyn Robbins from the Radical Housing Network. He currently manages a council estate in Islington, while previous employers include a property development company called Team and a housing association called Labo. So he has loads of experience in the sector, but stressed he'd only talk to me in a personal capacity for this article.
"This is bullshit," he surmised, when I asked about the campaign. "These are big, big organisations worth millions of pounds. They control lots of land, they've controlled policy for a long time and the housing crisis has got worse.
"I've worked in private sector property development," Robbins continued. "The reality is private property developers are interested in one thing – they're interested in the bottom line. So for them to now be championing the cause of affordable housing is just, you know... what have they been doing for the last ten or 15 years?
"I think the whole thing is a bit of a sham, really,"continued Robbins. "To my mind, this is like Dracula organising the blood transfusion service."
While private developers and landlords are heavily involved, the campaign is mainly funded by the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations – not-for-profit organisations that provide low-cost housing. So maybe that's all right, then?
Robbins didn't think so. "I've seen the housing association that I used to work for go from being one that cared about community, to being one that was only interested in the bottom line," he said. "This was a microcosm in my opinion but this has been the trend across the sector. Certainly the big ones, it's very, very difficult to tell the difference between a housing association and private property developer... Look at how much they pay their senior staff, look at the kind of deals they do with private developers, look at the fact that increasingly they're not providing social-rented homes. It's almost becoming [an offence to] the trades description act for them to call themselves 'social landlords'. I want to see the evidence."
I wondered if Robbins was being cynical, so I called the campaign for their take, and got through to the National Housing Federation which is heading up the campaign. First of all, I asked how the decisions get made. "The decisions are just made through... It really is a grassroots campaign," their spokesperson, Anna Brosnan, told me, "amongst the sector and the major seven partners, and then all the other supporter partners can kind of sign up or out as they wish."
So that's a grassroots housing campaign where the decisions are made in a totally grassroots way by large trade bodies, including the wealthy heads of the housing industry. Ben Beach, from the Radical Housing Network told me he thought this was less "grassroots" and more " astroturf".
Does Brosnan not think there's any conflict of interest there? "I really, really don't," she said. "At the last election, nobody talked about housing at all. And a few months after the last election, the funding for social housing was cut by 67 percent. We can't allow that to happen again. This election, we've made a very conscious decision across our sector, in the social housing and across the whole of the housing sector, that we need to make a noise and bring it to the attention of politicians and the public to make housing a political issue, so it's something people will vote about and it's something politicians will have to listen to and they can't ignore. And that's been the one guiding light for this campaign."
Julian Hall, a "shortlife" resident who's been trying to stop Lambeth Council selling his home to developers, was a bit dubious about this. "Activists might well look askance at the alliance of landlords, house builders, housing associations and councils protesting about the housing crisis, given that these interest groups have sometimes had a large hand to play in exacerbating it," he told me.
Liam Barrington-Bush was involved in the Focus E15 Mothers' campaign and another like it called Sweets Way Resists in Barnet. He wasn't convinced, either. "I'd say Homes for Britain is an attempt by those who push free market solutions through everything, to piggyback off the popular anger that exists around the housing crisis, and to further the interests of the companies that can cash in on that crisis." A statement from the Focus E15 Mothers has called Homes for Britain a "false campaign".
In October last year, I went to the MIPIM property industry conference and watched as developers and local councils nervously discussed the protesters outside who were heaping manure onto the conference hall. In hindsight, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the industry took the next step and tried to cast themselves as heroes against the crisis rather than the villains causing it.
But when I pressed Anna Brosnan on what the campaign's actual policies are, she said, "There's only one policy and that's that we want the next government to have a long-term strategy published within a year about how they're going to fix the housing crisis."
Which is pretty vague.
"The reason it hasn't got the policies," she explained, "is because you're never going to get landlords or private developers – as you've already pointed out – to agree what the best way is to do that."
What's clear is that now, absolutely everyone says they want to stop the housing crisis. The suggestion from Anna that the campaign was going to "make housing a political issue" seemed strange. Housing is already a political issue, violently playing out across the country, with some of the people backing Homes for Britain falling very clearly on one side of the battle. Can everyone really all sing from the same hymn sheet in this situation?
A Homes for Britain video
Some of the media coverage, meanwhile, has posed Homes for Britain as a "slick" contrast to the "raucous and disobedient" grassroots movements that have gone before. Don't get me wrong, the campaign's videos – which look like a sad inversion of the breathlessly aspirational videos property sharks love to sell their gated communities with – are nicely done. But you have to wonder who these movements are supposed to be obey – the bailiffs kicking them out of their homes? What's the opposite of a "raucous" protest movement? One that shuts up, I guess.
In a way, the fact that those groups are now campaigning about the mess they've created is a good thing. But the "solutions" they demand from politicians aren't necessarily going to be the ones that poor people who need homes are going to want. As if to prove the wealth of non-solutions on offer, today's budget sees George Osborne announce a Help to Buy ISA, bolstering a scheme that, as James Meek puts it, offers "already well-off people cheap loans to overbid for overpriced houses they couldn't otherwise afford".
As the election draws near, people will demand that something is done about the housing situation in this country. It makes perfect sense for the housing industry to jump on the very bandwagon that's out to get them, and turn it in a direction that ensures that whatever policies are proposed don't do anything to stop them cashing in on the issue, while silencing any dissenting voices. It seems that in Homes for Britain they have found their vehicle.
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