This radical plan could be the way to get social housing back on track | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Stop demonising people who need help with housing. A cross-party proposal for 3m affordable properties could allay the crisis

Home should be a sanctuary. Warm and safe, it is a place where a door can be firmly closed on the trials, threats and stresses of the outside world. A place you can rest, and enjoy your leisure time.

For as long as there have been people, they have needed homes. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, warmth and rest sit alongside food and water at the base of the pyramid. In his theory, only when those basic needs are met can we concern ourselves with higher goals.

You don’t need me to tell you that in the UK, a home has become so much more than this. Here, homes are investments, cashed in for retirement, left standing empty, or let at extortionate rates. Homes are status markers, their values shoehorned into newspaper articles (because how much your house is worth says something fundamental about who you are).

We have commodified this most basic of essentials to the point where its original purpose has been overlooked. Homes are no longer the shelter to which a human is entitled, but a symbol of your position in the social hierarchy. Home ownership is a goal to which many of us aspire but which eludes millions of people.

You shouldn’t need me to tell you that there is a nationwide housing crisis, but many people, safely and comfortably ensconced, still refuse to believe it, or insist it is only a London problem. (Tell that to the people in my home village in north Wales, who have had to move because of a boom in second homes. Tell that to my mother, who has just viewed a succession of mouldy, expensive hovels to rent in Cheshire. Tell that to the people living in tents in cities across the country.)

A cross-party commission released a report today, saying that England needs to build 3m council and social homes in the next 20 years to rescue all the people who are paying extortionate rents in overcrowded, unsuitable and even dangerous homes. These houses, the report says, are not just for the weak, the disabled and the desperate, but for what some might call “normal people”, if they have lost their humanity to the extent that they’ve bought into the narrative that poverty can be blamed on those who are mired in it.

The report argues that these council homes should also be for young people – for many buying a house will be an impossibility unless something drastic changes – and the 700,000 older people trapped in private rental properties. In other words, according to this report, there is no “us” and “them” – just people in need of homes.

To make a proposal to build so many houses in this climate is radical. In attempting to create a property-owning democracy, Margaret Thatcher enabled tenants to sell their former council houses off, essentially creating an “underclass” of social housing tenant now viewed as the lowest of the low by other sections of the population. I’d hazard that many of the policymakers and media figures involved in this debate have barely socialised with anyone living in the social housing that has become so ghettoised over the years, so removed from its original purpose of being “a living tapestry for a mixed community” as to be unrecognisable.

Instead, council houses are scarce resources to be fought over by the desperate, with 1.15 million families on waiting lists. Even if you are deemed sufficiently in need to be granted a home, you may well find yourself labelled unworthy by the press and the public. Perhaps you are a single mother, or you have “too many” children. Not worthy. Perhaps you fled here from another country, or are on benefits. Not worthy. Or perhaps, like Kate Osamor, you succeeded in doing something amazing: becoming an MP despite the odds stacked against you. Not worthy.

But who is worthy, when poor people – that is, people without enough money – have become so demonised? How bad do things have to get in your life before the government can offer you warmth and rest and others will not begrudge you for it? This competing for the most basic of resources is not the country that William Beveridge and Nye Bevan envisaged when they embarked on their postwar housebuilding programme. It is not the sign of a healthy country.

Subjected to the “alien test”, the whole thing seems barbaric. The proverbial space traveller arrives and asks: “Where do the humans on this island live?” And you say, well, some people without enough money live on these estates, and the other people without enough money pay these other people, who have lots more money, to live in their houses, though they are often damp and smelly and not fit for habitation (which is not a legal requirement). And some of those people, the ones with the money and the houses, are our political representatives, and they decide whether or not we should build more affordable houses, or whether people carry on paying for ones that don’t need to meet certain habitable standards.

Three million council houses for England. Imagine how brilliant, if it is allowed to happen. Imagine what it says about us, as a country, as a community, as a people. How proud we could feel. We could look back and say, well, we got a bit lost back there, but now we are back on track. We forgot that a home is a home, and people are just people, but then we remembered, and we built some houses, to give them warmth, and rest.

• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Second homes are a gross injustice, yet the UK government encourages them | George Monbiot
Britain’s wealthiest people are inflicting poverty on others because greed is displacing need, says Guardian columnist George Monbiot

George Monbiot

23, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Tories’ housing plans will solve nothing – we need to build more | Martha Gill
Talk of landlord ‘league tables’ is a deliberate distraction, says freelance journalist Martha Gill

Martha Gill

14, Aug, 2018 @11:18 AM

Article image
We need social housing, not warehouses, for homeless kids | Daniel Lavelle
Parking familes in temporary ‘human warehouses’ is storing up problems for the future, writes Daniel Lavelle

Daniel Lavelle

22, Aug, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The answer to the UK’s homelessness crisis is painfully simple: give people homes | Harry Quilter-Pinner
Finland has built more social housing. The US has sanctioned camps. We must decide what kind of country we want to be, says Harry Quilter-Pinner, who works in the homelessness sector

Harry Quilter-Pinner

18, Jun, 2019 @2:35 PM

Article image
Overcrowding in social housing in England soars to 24-year high
More than 300,000 households squeezed into too few rooms, official figures show

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

31, Jan, 2019 @11:50 AM

Article image
Playgrounds only for the rich kids? What grotesque social apartheid | Gaby Hinsliff
A developer has fenced off social housing residents from a playground outside their homes, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

26, Mar, 2019 @12:03 PM

Article image
House prices are crumbling – and so is Britain’s faith in property ownership | John Harris
Millions can’t afford to buy and millions more can’t afford their rent. What happened to the dream of decent, affordable homes? asks Guardian columnist John Harris

John Harris

05, Mar, 2023 @3:11 PM

Article image
City properties should be homes for people first – not investments | Sadiq Khan and Ada Colau
As the mayors of London and Barcelona, we see an emergency coming. The way housing works must be changed, say Sadiq Khan and Ada Colau

Sadiq Khan and Ada Colau

03, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The government wants to deport rough sleepers. We must resist this immoral act | Paul Bayes
The Home Office is asking councils for sensitive data on non-UK homeless people. I support their refusal to cooperate, says Anglican bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes

Paul Bayes

23, Jul, 2019 @9:50 AM

Article image
Homelessness is back on the Tories’ agenda, yet it’s they who made this crisis worse | Zoe Williams
Universal credit, the benefit cap, a failure to build new homes – all have contributed to people being unable to afford their rents, says Guardian columnist Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

13, Aug, 2018 @6:00 PM