The current direction of government policy will not solve the housing crisis and keeping quiet is no longer an option, argues Lara Oyedele
Stand up and be counted
‘First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
‘Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
‘Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
‘Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.’ (Pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller, 1945)
I don’t have any strong political allegiance (that’s Politics with a capital P). My passion has always been to enable and support people to have a decent, reasonably priced, secure roof over their heads. I’ve always tried to remain open minded. I’ve always hoped that Conservatives, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and whoever else, all essentially had the betterment of society as a whole at the core of their politics.
It is the means of delivery that differs. Or so I thought.
However, recently I have become more and more uneasy about the disposition of the current administration. A short list of some of the policy directions and political musings that have, along with many others, dented my naïve optimism, include:
- anyone earning more than £100,000 living in social housing should be made to leave said accommodation;
- families on inner London waiting lists should be moved to cheaper parts of the country;
- social homes in high-value areas should be sold off to build more, cheaper homes in less affluent locations;
- the families of anyone involved in the riots should be evicted;
- affordable rent that is not affordable;
- homeless people are all immigrants who should be sent back to their native countries;
- remove from local authorities the power to insist that private developers include social homes on their new build sites;
- disband the professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors;
- close the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (anyone remember the National Tenant Voice? ).
To me the trend is clear. It is one based on the principles of divide and rule. It is a path that pits the poor against the not-so-poor. It pits the low paid against the unemployed. Those renting from private landlords or struggling to manage their mortgages, against those living in social housing. It is their own fault that homeless people are homeless. Poor people are poor because they are lazy and choose to be poor. The fact is we’re all crabs in a basket.
I have tried to understand the thinking behind all these approaches. Maybe there is a logical economic argument or two hidden beneath all the rhetoric. They certainly do not purport to create the mixed communities, that up until very recently, everyone agreed were a good thing.
So if these political musings don’t create mixed communities and all the poorer tenants move to parts of the country where they have no social network and most probably, no jobs, and they create areas that are exclusively for the wealthy and ghettos of unemployment, my question is: do they produce more homes? Is this a productive sacrifice?
These trends will result in the well-off becoming even richer, at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable. And how many additional homes will be produced as a result of this geographical shuffling? And how many of these new homes will be affordable (I mean the traditional dictionary definition of affordable, not housing minister Grant Shapps’ ‘affordable’).
I wish I knew the solution to the housing crisis. I don’t. I do have to wonder why the opposition party has not offered any more substantive solutions. Labour should be able, by now, to say what it would do to build more homes without punishing the most needy.
Finding an alternative
And what proposals have the professional bodies put forward? Surely, we have enough intellectual capacity within the sector to propose another way.
Anyway, back to Martin Niemöller. I see the direct relevance of his statement in 1945 to the current state of affairs. Indeed, the measure of an enlightened society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Or so I thought. Poor families living in expensive areas are not the reason there is a housing shortage. Immigrants should not be blamed for homelessness. Housing associations paying for staff to attend training courses with a professional body is not the reason for the economic mess the country is in.
No one ever applied for a job with a housing association or local authority in order to become rich. No one ever registered on their local authority waiting list to hob nob with the rich and famous. When times are hard we should look after each other and not tear each other down. We should all stand up and be counted. We must look out for our tenants. We must support the vulnerable in our communities. We must support our staff. We must support our professional bodies. We must support our tenant organisations. If we don’t speak for them, who will speak for us?
Lara Oyedele is chief executive of Odu-Dua Housing Association and chair of BMEnational