Week of Inequality Stories
This week’s news exposed just how unequal land and home ownership is, and how that makes Britain an even more unequal society.
First, we had housing activist Kirsty Archer being ridiculed by Sky News presenter (and landlord) Jayne Secker about the abolition of Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. Kirsty had been handed a no-fault eviction notice by her landlord at the end of February, giving her 8 weeks to find new accommodation in London’s brutal property market.
Instead of discussing this huge victory for campaigners and activists across the country, Secker went off-piste and had a little rant about her tenants being unable to change a lightbulb. Some young people just aren’t skilled enough to rent, she posited. That’s not the landlord’s fault. At this point, I assume, we are both thinking the same thing. What exactly is a skilled renter and how on earth do I become one?
Well, for young people in London, I guess it would mean something like being able to afford food at the end of the month after you’ve somehow navigated spending over half your income on rent while financing any extremely interest-heavy student loan repayments. All the while being disproportionately afflicted by the rise in insecure work with and receiving a pay-check that is still worth less than it was in 2008. Oh, and as Secker helpfully highlighted, plenty of good old-fashioned common sense.
Anyway, rant aside, Secker has since apologised for her conduct but her comments and the general issue of housing all point in the same direction - the UK has an inequality problem. To really drive this issue home, we found out on Thursday that half of England’s land is still owned by less than 1% of the population. Shockingly, in 2019, 30% of all land in England is still owned by the aristocracy and gentry.
In fact, the issue of land and housing are inextricably linked. There can be no understanding of today’s housing crisis without a deeper understanding of the market for land. By some estimates, one tenth of all public land in Britain has been privatised since Margaret Thatcher came to power. This is a huge problem for any state-led expansion of housing because a) there is quite literally less land to build houses on, b) it is very expensive to buy land back off the private sector due to a little piece of legislation called the Land Compensation Act of 1961 and c) the private sector cannot (or will not) pursue wider social or environmental goals like the public sector.
This dynamic has occurred alongside rapid deregulation of our financial system which now allows quick and easy access to cheap credit through mortgages. Potential homeowners, supported by banks, compete to own a finite amount of houses, which in turn pushes up prices so future homeowners borrow even more which pushes up prices even more and so the cycle continues. Josh-Ryan Collins has written about this in his excellent and aptly named book why can’t you afford a home?
So, to cut to the chase, we are in a situation where home ownership is now a pipedream for millions of young people as a result of the ongoing financialisation of the UK housing market set against a back-drop of hugely unequal ownership of land. Ongoing austerity measures have exacerbated this crisis. In an effort to make ends meet, councils resort to selling off even more public land to try and and the result is only less affordable housing.
This is the history that allows us to trace the origins of Kirsty being treated so appallingly on Sky News. Those with a foothold on the infamous property ladder are now a minority in London – there are more renters than homeowners. Yet we often place the blame for these structural failings in our economy at the foothold of individuals. Don’t own your own home? You’re spending too much on brunch. Getting evicted for no reason? Maybe you don’t have the necessary skills to rent.
This week’s stories are a constant reminder that inequality permeates our society in overt and covert ways. But there is nothing natural about inequality and there are plenty of examples across the global to take inspiration from.
Scotland, for instance, have a Community Right to Buy scheme which allows communities to purchase unused land for housing and local projects, thousands of protestors in Berlin are demanding the expropriation of flats from massive landlords and recent polling in the US shows the vast majority of workers support having the right to buy their company before it is sold on. These examples all speak of the need for democratic ownership. This is the vision we must extol for the future of the UK economy and, crucially, we have the ‘necessary skills’ to pursue it.
Democratic ownership of the UK economy must be the vision that we extol for the future and, crucially, we have the ‘necessary skills’ for it.
Liam Kennedy is Research Officer at CLASS