Nine Elms Nine Elms luxury development in London. Image: Shawn Lelshman/Flickr

Social housing is no longer an option for all but a handful, writes Alastair Stephens

Millions of lives are being ruined by Britain’s housing crisis but it’s creation is no accident.

It has become a truth universally acknowledged that the country is in a deep housing crisis. The media and politicians now acknowledge what millions knew already.

But behind the headlines, millions of real lives are being ruined: people losing their possessions as they are turfed onto the street; children moving home and changing schools constantly; others feel they cannot even start a family due to lack of accommodation.

There is no part of the country unaffected, though London is the epicentre of the crisis. In London housing is the most expensive in the country, with the average home now costing over half a million pounds. Rents are the highest in the country and take up nearly half of people’s take-home income. Most working-age people have virtually no prospect of ever buying a place.

Those lucky enough to have tenancies in social housing increasingly live under the threat of “social cleansing”. Ever more estates in London are being sold off and demolished to make way for luxury housing. Cleared estates are left standing empty for years whilst their former communities are uprooted and scattered to the winds. As Tacitus might have observed, they create desolation and call it “regeneration”.

Elsewhere in Britain the issues might be different, but the drivers are the same: the disappearance of social housing, the relentless rise of house prices and the stagnation of incomes. The crisis is no accident though. It was created by government policies and its continuation and deepening is deliberate.

For most people, being stuck in private rented accommodation is a crisis. They have no security because they can be evicted for no reason at any time, they have no control over their own homes, and rents have continually risen faster than wages, causing them to constantly move on in search of cheaper accommodation.

And yet the government want more people to live like this. Last year housing minister Brandon Lewis said that the government wants to create a “larger rental sector”.

In this they are succeeding. Since 2008, lending on buy-to-let mortgages is up 40%, whilst lending to home buyers has risen by just 5%.


Buy-to-let was invented in 1996 and boomed. It was encouraged under New Labour. Now one in five homes in Britain is owned by a buy-to-let landlord, and it is predicted this will move to one in three.

At the same time, a whole generation has been locked out of home ownership. They are paying what has become a forced subsidy in rent to the middle class, whose homes have also spiralled in value. Both phenomena represent a vast transfer of wealth from the young and the poor to the old and rich.

And social housing is no longer an option for all but a handful. In 1979, 40% of the population lived in a council house. It was completely normal and there was no stigma to living on “an estate”.

Council housing represented a massive break with the market. It said that people had the right to decent accommodation no matter how wealthy they were. The rich should, through the tax system, help level the playing field. This was accepted even by the Tories, who at election time used to boast of how many council houses they had built.

That is, until neoliberalism came along. When Thatcher came to power the Tories set about dismantling social housing. They started by selling off council houses. Housing should be left up to the free market, they said.

Millions of people did buy their council house. And who wouldn’t? They were sold at a massive discount, and then a boom was engineered to inflate their value.

It was a bonanza for one lucky generation, and helped blind people to the dismantlement of post-war settlement.

Right to buy

A third of the homes that were sold are now owned by private landlords, like the 40 owned by Charles Gow, son of the minister who was responsible under Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. What was built at the taxpayers’ expense two generations ago is now enriching the already rich.

But when they were gone, they were gone. Most social housing that was lost was not replaced. That which was built by housing associations, the Tories now want to sell off as well.

But the breaking point has been reached. Across the country there is rising anger and struggles breaking out. Campaigns like Focus E15 Mothers have inspired others to fight back.

A new movement for social justice is being born before our eyes. It is still too fragmented, but it is finding its unity. People see that their many situations, seemingly different, are joined together by common causes.It is the Tories who want to take us back to a Victorian past of haves and havenots. As a movement we can turn the situation around, and advance towards a future of decent homes for all.

This article originally appeared in October’s free Counterfire paper. Contact us if you’d like copies to distribute.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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