Octavia Hill's housing dream turns into a nightmare
Today the great and the good will unveil a memorial in Westminster Abbey to commemorate social reformer Octavia Hill, who died 100 years ago. A pioneer thinker and campaigner, she worked to promote the idea of a collective form of property ownership.
Land and buildings of special beauty, she insisted, should be held in trust, on behalf of the nation, inalienably and in perpetuity. This proposal was enshrined in the 1907 National Trust Act.
But Hill did not confine her concerns to aesthetic issues. She saw how private landowners and the demand for profit rode roughshod over places of beauty as well as the lives of millions of workers forced to live in conditions of squalor. With critic John Ruskin, Hill set up social housing schemes to provide homes for some 3,000 tenants in London.
The 20th century was to see the rise of mass municipal housing schemes which constituted an alternative to the commercial market. But today, decent social housing has virtually become a thing of the last century.
The glaring problems that Hill addressed, rather than being resolved, are worsening. The National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations providing accommodation for some five million people, reports that a major housing crisis in England and Wales is set to worsen rapidly.
One in 12 families in England is currently waiting for social housing, while homelessness has risen by 26% over the last two years. Social housing stock has plummeted over the last decades as rents and property prices continue to soar.
The cost of privately renting a home has gone up by 37% over the last five years. The result is that 417,830 families presently depend on housing benefit to help them pay private rents – an increase as the NHF points out – of 86% in only three years.
Rising housing costs have a disastrous impact on the lives of millions of people, especially young families. Incomes have not kept up with housing costs with the result that increasing numbers of people who are in employment need to claim benefits just to keep a roof over their heads.
A market analysis by Oxford Economics shows that social and public house building is dwarfed by the commercial market: 72,876 new homes were built by the private sector, 43,164 by housing associations and a mere 1,830 by local authorities in 2011-12.
The future is equally gloomy. House prices and rents are forecast to show steep increases. Private rents – already unaffordable for many – could be some 27% higher by 2017.
Perhaps the most shocking reality is the contrast between house prices, rents and earnings. London heads the list. The average house price in London in 2011 was a staggering £421,395. For a 75% mortgage you would need an income of £90,299 per year plus a substantial deposit. Not too surprisingly, the lowest house prices are in the North-east – one of the most deprived, high unemployment areas of England.
Amongst other proposals, the NHF calls for the government to release more public land for building by housing associations and to invest in more social housing.
But, is building on brownfield sites what is likely to be low quality housing while huge numbers of properties stand vacant or need upgrading, really the way to go? Such measures can only be sticking plaster on a huge festering wound. A revolutionary housing policy is needed to end the recurring misery of homelessness, overcrowding, soaring rents and exploitative landlords.
The right to affordable housing must be worked for side by side with, as Octavia Hill foresaw, the protection of open spaces for the appreciation of all. The fight for a social right to decent housing will be central to the creation of an Agreement of the People, which will begin in London on November 17.
A World to Win secretary
22 October 2012