I found John Lanchester’s state of England novel, Capital, tedious and overrated. But it had moments of insight. Lanchester understands, for example, the central divide in Britain today, which is land more than wealth. From his prologue:
Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true. Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won.
This is it. If you own property you win. If you don’t you lose. We are approaching what conservatives call, with fondness, a ‘property-owning democracy’. You have to own property to have a say.
The Guardian this week carried a devastating piece from Amelia Gentleman, who takes on long, complex investigations on the lives of the poor and is probably the best argument for staying with the paper. Trekking around the streets of Newham with a housing enforcement team, Gentleman found people living in sheds and freezers, and three-storey HMOs that sleep fifteen. For me it’s refreshing to see the council trying to crack down on this problem – having dealt with local government so long, it’s great to see a team I’d be proud to serve – but the general impact of her piece is shocking and depressing.
Landlords are subdividing family homes into smaller and smaller units, haphazardly extending plumbing and electricity connections from the main properties into the garden sheds and garages, which they have no problem in renting out.
Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is dismayed. ‘It’s big money. You get a few breeze blocks, sling up some crappy old shed in your back garden, and now you’re making hundreds and hundreds of pounds a week. It doesn’t take long for you to make a lot of money out of it, provided you are prepared to trade in human misery.
‘We found a walk-in freezer where people have been living, paying rent to live there,’ Wales says. ‘The record was one house with 38 people, of whom 16 were children.’
About a quarter of the borough’s landlords take cash rents. ‘They just take the money and they don’t give a toss about the conditions the people are living in. It is poor people who are being exploited by rogue landlords trying to trade on people’s misery.’
This is what happens when you have an unregulated market. The weak are enslaved by the strong. The strong make up reasons to justify it so that they can look in the mirror and sleep at night. But the situation remains the same. This is what capitalism looks like, when it’s not manipulated and controlled: the brute and pathetic economy of handwritten cards in newsagent windows and strips of bacon hanging from a sill in plastic bags.
The problem with the private rental sector is that it is dominated by middle-aged dimwits, people who are retired or maybe schoolteachers or people who work in NHS management or DWP clerical, people who have little talent or work ethic but want a lot of secondary passive income. Because practically anyone can become a landlord, the cowboy rental market attracts these people like iron filings to a magnet, with disastrous consequences for tenants. Disrepair is far worse than in the social sector because so many landlords don’t possess even the beginnings of the skills, experience and knowledge you need to manage a property, do not have contractors on standby, do not understand their obligations and quite often don’t give a fuck anyway.
What a deal these bastards get. Rents of up to a grand per room per month. A security deposit scheme that provides additional cashflow. A housing benefit system that acts as a direct subsidy. And – unlike almost any business or profession – no rules, no red tape, no formal regulation. Oh, there was a scary moment a couple of years back when the Labour government proposed a national landlords register. But – hooray! – the coalition government tore up this commitment just a month after taking office. Its housing minister Grant Shapps stood up in the Commons and promised ‘good landlords across the country’ that ‘the Government has no plans to create any burdensome red tape and bureaucracy, so you are able to continue providing a service to your tenants.’ The National Landlords Association was delighted: its chairman David Salusbury responded that ‘We wholeheartedly welcome the reminder from Government that the vast majority of tenants are happy with the service they receive from landlords.’ I just bet you do.
The obvious answer is to build more houses, but the planning system is rigged against this. There is a housing development going up where I work. The development consists of affordable flats in a middle class surburban area. The middle class suburbanites have opposed the development at every stage. Among the reasons they give is that the development will create an overdemand for local schools. Many homeowners don’t care about poor people having somewhere to live. They don’t want working class children in their schools.
To give them credit, the coalition has tried to reform the planning system, proposing a ‘presumption of development’ (which sounds scary until you realise that most of England is not what you’d call ‘developed’) but this has been fought by various heritage and conservation groups, led by the idiotic Sir Simon Jenkins, and newspaper editors with second homes in the Cotswolds. What has emerged from the thrash of revision and debate is all over the place, a watered down framework that will probably do little for either housebuilding or the environment.
It comes back to the register. The register is the best, most immediate way of helping people. Landlords should have to study for a licence, undertake renewals, comply to national standards and co-operate with spot checks. The landlords will moan. They will say that red tape will destroy the market. But publicans, cab drivers and restauranteurs have to earn qualifications and comply with regulations. The NLA will say that honest landlords will be forced out of the business. No they won’t. The register will force out all the cowboys and part timers, who will just have to work for a living like the rest of us. The NLA will moan that ‘rogue landlords’ will be ‘driven underground’. Fine. We will go underground, we will find them, and we will put them in jail.
I think there could be more political support for this idea than people imagine. It would be great if everyone could afford a nice little house with a picket fence and two and half dogs, but come on, let’s flag down a cab and head for Real Street: the HMO market is not going away. A good HMO is full of laughter, friendship and fun. A bad HMO is a place of chaos, paranoia and despair, where no one can sleep for the sound of slamming doors. Whatever their experiences, middle class graduates will be doing the HMO thing for at least a few years of adulthood. Their parents will worry about the expense and the conditions. Their parents vote, and write letters. Labour should take advantage. Like the tuition fee hike, the coalition’s indifference to housing seems to make political sense in the here and now, but may carry a heavy comeback down the line.