“If you want to see cognitive dissonance in action, watch the Conservative party try to develop popular housing policies without contravening its loyalty to developers, landlords or free market fundamentalism.
For years, experts from across the housing sector have called for investment in social housing and proper regulation of the private rented sector, so it was entirely predictable that Theresa May’s flagship policy at this year’s conference was a £10bn boost for the housing bubble in the form of the Help to Buy scheme. There may now be some move towards investment in housebuilding – albeit in partnership with large corporations – but the problem remains that the Conservatives are unwilling to confront the origins of the UK’s “great housing disaster”.
This apparent inability to understand root causes is a tendency that has afflicted successive governments. In 1989, as Margaret Thatcher’s government finalised the deregulation of the private rented sector, it was put to the then housing minister, Sir George Young, that some tenants might struggle with rents that would inevitably rise once rent controls were lifted. “If people cannot afford to pay that market rent,” Young assured, “housing benefit will take the strain.”
Fast forward to 2010 and the coalition government’s decision to cap housing benefit because its expenditure in the private rented sector was “out of control”. No one in David Cameron’s government mentioned deregulation, but to anyone who knew the history, the connection was clear: private sector tenants were now to be punished for the consequences of Thatcher’s reforms.
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent announcement that Labour would reintroduce some form of rent control has prompted landlords to warn that such a move would be a “disaster” for tenants. Landlords often claim to be acting in the best interests of tenants, yet cases in which tenants themselves laud the merits of uncontrolled rents are rather more difficult to find.
… It is clear that the UK needs investment in social housing, but regardless of what May announces today it will take time to build the number of homes needed to have a knock-on effect on prices. In the meantime, there are various models of rent control that have been proven to create more secure, affordable and sustainable rented sectors in other countries. Adopting a model such as that proposed by Generation Rent above would improve the lives of millions of renters in the here and now.
The truth is that the UK’s housing crisis is not merely a problem of supply and demand, but of class inequality being reproduced through property relations. Perhaps it is the prospect of the present system being curtailed that some find so terrifying.
• Matt Wilde is a research fellow in anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.”