You know there’s a national housing crisis when it reaches a bastion of Middle England. The Archers has tackled many social issues during its 68 years, often holding a mirror to the country. Currently, the BBC radio soap opera is running a storyline that captures some of the damage an acute public policy failure is doing to people’s lives.
Emma and Ed are a youngish couple with long roots in their rural Ambridge community. Like millions of other “real” people, they’ve been struggling to find somewhere to live in the place they call home. They’d set their heart on one of the new houses being built in the village by hard-nosed property developer, Justin Elliot. They’ve saved hard – Emma taking extra shifts at the chicken factory – and eventually got a mortgage for a place on the new estate. (She had also campaigned that at least some of the homes should be affordable to local people with moderate incomes.) Everything was set for them to move in to their dream home with their young children and live happily ever after.
But that’s not usually how things go in The Archers. Just before moving day, Ed got sacked. He’d been doing some dodgy work on the side to help swing the mortgage and his boss found out. Emma tried desperately to borrow money from family and friends, but the bank pulled the plug. The move was off. Under the stress and humiliation, Emma and Ed’s relationship hit the rocks.
This fictional tale contains many truths. Although some people resist the term “housing crisis”, arguing that what we’re seeing is just the normal workings of capitalism, such theoretical semantics are irrelevant to the real-life Emma and Eds. Our society has lost the ability to meet a basic human need for a significant proportion of its population. Recently, the Children’s Commissioner reported that 210,000 children are registered as homeless, some of them living in shipping containers. It’s hard to imagine a more damning indictment of successive governments.
The Archers reminds us this isn’t just a London problem. 1,114,477 households are on English council waiting lists, 79% of them outside the capital. Nearly a third (319,808) are in shire districts. Across the country, private sector rents have risen by an average 9.5% since 2014, almost by as much in the West Midlands (where Ambridge is), as in London. Private tenants in England and Wales spend at least a quarter of their income on rent and buying a home costs 8 times average earnings. As the Resolution Foundation has commented:
In the 1980s it would have taken a typical household in their late 20s around three years to save for an average-sized deposit. It would now take 19 years. Because millennials also have less access to social housing [my emphasis] than earlier generations, almost four-in-ten of them rent privately at age 30…spending an average of nearly a quarter of their net income on housing, three times more than the pre-war generation did in their 20s. But they are getting less for their money: they are commuting longer distances than their predecessors and have less space.
But nor is this just a problem for millennials. A 2018 report by the Centre for Towns identified unsuitable housing as one of the key issues for our rapidly aging population, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. In response, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has called for “planning for the future with age-friendly design”. But the capitalist housing model isn’t geared up for this and building homes for all ages is about more than better design.
Our disjointed housing policy is inculcating social isolation and stretching mutual support networks to their limits. Health and social care are other policy emergencies the government is failing to tackle. They should be considered alongside housing, as they were by the post-war Labour government. Many of the high-quality council homes built in that period were, as RIBA advocates, planned with the future in mind.
Estates, like the one I manage in London, provided for people at different stages of their lives. Family homes of different sizes, smaller ones for younger people – perhaps in tower blocks – ground-floor bedsits with communal gardens for seniors. Sadly, the Right to Buy has sabotaged all that, placing the housing market above housing need – private interests above social wellbeing.
A striking feature of The Archers storyline is that council housing has been written out of the plot, even though it’s the answer to Emma, Ed’s and the nation’s predicament. People with longer Ambridge memories tell me there were once some council homes in the village. But like 2 million others around the UK, they were transferred to a housing association, organisations that don’t share the core characteristics or principles of council housing. Its absence leaves people like Emma and Ed with few options outside the super-exploitation and insecurity of private renting. As they’ve found out, relying on private developers like Justin Elliot to provide homes working class people can afford leads to bitter disappointment.
Some of the issues related to the housing crisis are complex. The solution, at least in terms of housing supply, is not. The UK has never built enough homes unless local councils have been carrying at least 40% of the load. Of the 860,870 homes completed in the UK between 1949 and 1952, 82% were built through local authorities. The proportion of new council homes reduced over subsequent years, but was still over half of total output until 1959. Council housing continued to average over 40% of new homes built annually from 1960-’80. During the four decades after the war, local authorities always built at least 110,000 homes a year.
But Emma and Ed didn’t see this – and they’re not alone. Decades of under-investment has driven council housing to the stigmatised margins. I was at a union meeting recently when a young member said “I was lucky. I never had to live in council housing”. Many of the older members in the room responded “I was lucky that I did”. This gap between those who could benefit most from council housing and their perception of it must be closed and this entails challenging the hegemonic grip of owner occupation.
Responsibility for this lies heavily with the Labour Party and wider labour movement, particularly as we approach a general election with decisive implications. There’s a real danger of repeating the failed policies of the past. Making an unambiguous, unapologetic commitment to more and better council housing could make the difference between having a Corbyn government and a Johnson one committed to the predatory capitalism personified by Trump.
The Archers captures how people’s lives are being blighted by a housing situation out of control. Regaining control is the critical task which council housing addresses. Experience proves that at a time of crisis, the state must step in. A new generation of well-designed, well-built, energy-efficient, publicly-owned homes must connect with a wider vision of the kind of society we want to live in. Removing millions of homes from the vagaries of property speculation would lay the foundation of a more stable economy and more stable lives, free of the kind of trauma Emma and Ed are experiencing.