South of the River – Changes

You may be surprised to hear that I don’t watch a lot of programmes on Channel 5, but there was a very interesting film about housing, homelessness and poverty on this week.

Fifty years ago the then newly formed housing charity Shelter sent a photographer, Nick Hedges, to document the appalling living conditions many people were enduring in the 1960s. The images, together with Ken Loach’s film Cathy Come Home, shamed the nation into action.

The film went to find the people who had been in the original photos and discover what had (or hadn’t) changed for them. It also spoke to homeless families today living in temporary accommodation.

So much has changed over the last fifty years, but its not all been for the good and here we are in the middle of another housing crisis. It’s particularly acute in London where the overheated housing market pushes even professionals such as nurses and teachers into homelessness. But it affects us here in South Leeds, with waiting lists, sofa surfers and young people unable to buy their own house.

A home is one of our fundamental building blocks, whether we are single or have a family. It is security, it is a base from which to build our lives.

The fundamental problem is that we are not building enough homes and we haven’t been for decades. Not just council houses but private homes to buy too. That has led to massive house price inflation and rent inflation.

One of the key turning points was the 1988 Housing Act, which, amongst many provisions, brought in the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). This was supposed to revitalise the private rented sector where, to mix my metaphors, landlords were struggling under the yoke of unnecessary red tape. That is, tenants had some protection in the form of a Secure Tenancy and rent levels set by the independent Rent Officer.

I don’t have time today to go into the question of language, but you will notice that ‘secure’ has slid into ‘assured’, ‘fair’ rents now become ‘affordable’ – whatever that means. With the AST tenants can be moved on every six months for no other reason than the six months is up. Of course many landlords don’t want to move their tenants on, but they do want to put the rent up and a new tenancy is easier than a rent increase clause in a longer tenancy.

I recently reported on the two Beeston streets that are being sold wholesale. The agents stated that with a bit of “active asset management”, new owners could increase their rental income substantially. What they meant is taking every opportunity to put the rent up.

These constant rent hikes are tough on the tenants, but have wider implications for our communities. You might be able to stay in your home and pay the new rent, but you are likely to look for somewhere cheaper first. People get into a cycle of moving from street to street, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, every six months or every year.

It means you don’t commit to an area, because you know you won’t be there long. Why should you care if there’s rubbish on the street, or loud parties down the road. You’re only here for a while, then you’ll be gone. At best you turn a blind eye, at worst you drop the litter and hold the parties.

If you have children you may find you have to change schools, or have long journeys to and from school. Neither of these is great for the child. Research suggests that the upheaval of changing school can set a child’s education back a whole year.

So what’s the answer? It’s actually very simple. We need to build more houses. We need more social housing and we need more private housing for sale. Building these would give a massive boost to the economy, creating jobs and increasing tax revenues. It would also stop the spiralling housing cost by rebalancing supply and demand and reduce the housing benefit bill to boot.

There’s just one small problem. The government is ideologically wedded to austerity. They would rather see ordinary people suffer than solve the problem and its many consequences.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.