A chilling look at housing

James Meek has written a chilling, wide-ranging, impressive (and impressively long) feature about the state of British housing in the latest issue of the London Review of Books.

James Meek has written a chilling, wide-ranging, impressive (and impressively long) feature about the state of British housing in the latest issue of the London Review of Books

While it touches on the rise in house prices and the dearth of new housing starts, most of it deals with social housing and its predecessor, council housing.

According to Meek, we are still seeing the knock-n effects from Thatcher’s Right to Buy, which not only sold off council housing but refused to allow councils to spend the receipts either on building new housing or on housing repairs.

This latter had the effect of making the transfer of assets to housing associations seem the best solution. While many of these associations started with the noblest of motives, and many still have good intentions, cutbacks in government subsidies are forcing them to behave more and more like commercial corporations – complete with fat cat salaries for the people at the top. 

Meek talks in particular about the Sulkin House in Tower Hamlets, where tenants have resisted a transfer to housing association ownership. Much of this was, Mekk argues, as a result of a political campaign by George Galloway, but there is also concern that the proposed housing association will infill many of the communal areas of the building (in the design of which Berthold Lubetkin played a major part) with new housing for sale. 

The council may have no choice but to do the same, Meek says. The result of all this is that rents are rising, with more money in the end going to private landlords. He talks about the bedroom tax as well, and the lack of properties for people to move into.

It is a sobering read in the festive season. He is to be applauded for writing it. One might wonder what this has to do with the LRB, which is supposed to cover books. The answer is that it is one of the few places that still publishes this kind of long-form writing – more than 13,000 words and few illustrations.

If you feel like another dose of anger, there is a well-argued rant on the blog of Emma Dent Coad, a writer on architecture and planning and a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, She writes about the chaos after the recent flooding and the fact that the government makes concerned noises but has cut back support to – well almost everything. She writes:

‘The consequence of cutting services back to the bone and paying minimum wage was graphically illustrated in K&C a couple of years back, when we had suffered a massive snowfall. Wading through snow and ice on unsalted streets and pavements, I saw a lone street sweeper, Alan, elderly and with hands gnarled with arthritis, attempting to clear Ladbroke Grove with a broom, no gloves or protective warm clothing whatever. ‘Why are you on your own?’ I asked. ‘The others can’t get into the borough’, he told me. ‘Don’t they give you gloves?’, I asked. He just gave me a knowing look and returned to his impossible task. Living on minimum wage is nigh on impossible in Kensington and Chelsea, and this was the obvious and intolerable consequence. Alan retired soon after due to ill health, which was no surprise.’

A merry Christmas and a prosperous new year – for some at least.

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