Friday, December 09, 2011

The Great British Property Scandal

George Clarke is well-meaning, but politically naive
Channel 4, 6th and 7th December 2011

After watching both episodes of Channel 4's The Great British Property Scandal, I was in no doubt that the presenter - architect George Clarke - was absolutely sincere in his determination to end the proliferation of "empties" across our towns and cities. But while he made it very clear that working class people were losing out, he failed to identify who they were losing out to, and in an effort to present a 'good news story' he publicised a campaign which is doomed to failure.

The fact at the centre of Clarke's programmes was a stark one - there are one million empty homes in Britain, and two million families in need of a home. Reasonably, all these people could be homed without a single new structure being built. Presumably, these figures don't include the quarter of a million 'second homes', which are an irrational luxury at a time when so many people are either on the streets or suffering in the squalid bedsits shown in Monday's Landlords From Hell, also on Channel 4.

Clarke presented us with a number of horror stories: the sole man left in a Pathfinder street, the ex soldier whose son had to sleep in a chair, and the extended family with several children making do with two bedrooms. But in each case, despite his obvious sympathy, he failed to tell us how they got into that situation.

A similar thing was true of the row upon row of empties - notably in Toxteth, Liverpool. Who owned these properties? Why were they empty? Why were they so heavily 'protected' from squatters? Clarke provided little to no analysis of this, instead endlessly fulminating that it was really upsetting, which of course it is.

There are many contributory reasons why the situation is as it is, but all are symptomatic of capitalism in decay. Under New Labour, the Pathfinder scheme saw councils try to evict poor working class people from their own homes, using compulsory purchase orders. When the communities had been broken up, much of the money dried up, and some buildings were bulldozed, while some were left to rot. The wealthy, 'aspirational' families or young couples rarely took their place.

Also, since neoliberal reforms saw the provision of 'social housing' privatised and then gradually wound down, fewer and fewer 'affordable homes' have been built. According to a recent report by the Halifax, just 38% of properties are now considered affordable for so-called 'key workers' - including nurses, teachers, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers. This is compared to 64% a decade ago, the 2008 price crash notwithstanding.

Clarke proposed a lending facility for owners looking to do up empty buildings. A formerly homeless person would then rent the house, and the owner would pay the money at an interest rate of zero. Hypothetically, this seems like a good way of reducing homelessness. Yet the ultimate reason for the status quo is that it is extremely profitable for the mortgage lenders out there. Yes, this too can be traced back to the financial sector. This is why Clarke's well-intentioned policy suggestion will fall on deaf ears to the extent which it cuts across the interests of those pulling the strings.

US Occupy activists are targetting banks and their housing foreclosures
If Clarke's scheme were to be put in place, the law of supply and demand suggests that house prices would tumble, upsetting many 'swing voters', but also, more importantly, the bankers. After all, a fall in house prices would mean that mortgages would be paid off much quicker, costing the lenders huge amounts in lost debt bondage. Moreover, politicians are aware that the plight of the homeless acts as a strong deterrent to the broad masses of working people who might want to rock the boat.

The political operators who Clarke courted at the Conservative Party conference are far less naive and well-meaning than Clarke himself. They class conscious defenders of elite privilege, and would not do anything to harm the interests of the super-rich. David Cameron said he'd read Clarke's suggestion, Housing Minister Grant Shapps appeared to sign a petition out of embarrassment, and a backbencher raised his profile by promising to "ask for a debate" on the issue. All of this was celebrated by Clarke, as he urged viewers to sign up online, and keep pressure on the government. Unfortunately, to MPs and political bosses, petitions are an almost non-existent form of pressure. If only it were that easy.

Clarke was much stronger when he advocated largescale squatting by the homeless - an action which will soon be illegal if the current government has its way. After all, as he pointed out, squatting was a not insignificant factor in the mass building of council homes after World War Two. However, Clarke's own attempt showed just how difficult this can be these days. Many of the properties were sealed up, making any entry a criminal offence. After hours of searching, he found one with a high open window, and just about managed to clamber through. But inside, the conditions were worse than basic - the fixtures and fittings had evidently been destroyed, in an effort to deter would-be squatters. It would be difficult to imagine an isolated person with no money being able to make such a place livable, or even much preferable to a night on the streets.

It is the apparent despair of the catastrophic situation which makes this week's actions by an American Occupy offshoot all the more inspiring. The case of Tasha Glasgow seems to have won the most corporate media attention, including in The Guardian:
"Glasgow was reportedly rendered homeless most recently after her housing voucher was revoked, shortly before she was scheduled to move into a permanent space. Occupy Wall Street organisers say austerity measures imposed by Michael Bloomberg, New York's mayor, caused Glasgow to lose the home she planned to have.

Glasgow and her two children have not yet moved into their new house, but plan to after volunteer renovation teams make a series of improvements to the space. In the meantime, crews of demonstrators are working in shifts to keep the location guarded around the clock."
Occupy's latest project is a very promising one. Instead of merely camping in public squares and parks, "the 99%" of Occupy Our Homes directly take up the fight against the bankers - the so-called "1%". Something like this would a great step forward in the UK class war.

Ultimately, we must confiscate all the ill-gotten riches of the banking leeches, and bring them under democratic, working class control. Only then will we overcome the horrific symptoms of late capitalist decay.

The Great British Property Scandal can be viewed on 4oD.
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