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Angela Tilby: Homes do not have to be owned

26 February 2021


A Peabody housing estate in Camden, north London

A Peabody housing estate in Camden, north London

THE Archbishops are surely right to press the urgent case for more social housing. Failure to provide enough council-run accommodation has had dire consequences for those who are most vulnerable, driving many into the hands of unscrupulous landlords and increasing homelessness.

The pandemic, as Archbishop Welby points out, has made things only worse. Whatever the merits of the Right to Buy Scheme, it has reduced the publicly held housing stock, and promises to replace lost dwellings have not been fulfilled.

The issue is not just about provision: it is also about quality and safety. The Grenfell Tower scandal has revealed a deplorable mixture of lax regulation from councils, misplaced trust from construction companies, and sheer inexcusable dishonesty from those who provided the flammable cladding (News, 12 February). But the malaise goes deeper than that.

There is a strange snobbery about housing in Britain, where it is simply taken for granted that all right-minded people must aspire to owning their own property: hence the mantra of Britain as a property-owning democracy. But there is no particular virtue in home-ownership. In Europe and the United States, people rent across the social spectrum.

Now that mortgages are often beyond the reach even of those earning reasonably good incomes, the aspiration to ownership for all may fade, and this would be a good thing for society as a whole. It might lead to developers’ caring more about the quality of new-build accommodation, whether for private or council let.

There is no great mystery about what people want in a home: safety, accessibility, a view, access to green space, privacy, and belonging. There is surely a place for “reimagining”, as Archbishop Welby puts it, what it means to have a home, not a mere “unit” — a place where human beings thrive as they live and sleep and work and nurture children. The Peabody estates in London communicate dignity on a human scale. They still enhance the urban landscape and inspire affection from those who live in them. Attractive, durable design surely does not have to cost extra.

In my pandemic walks, I have crossed several council estates here in Portsmouth. Some feel like communities and look well cared for, but too many are dreary and functional. The mess left in walkways and streets is a clear indicator of what their inhabitants think of them. There are blocks of flats where the only decorative features are large panels in primary colours that catch the eye from the road. The message that they send is that the inhabitants are children: the colours are those of the nursery.

We must stop patronising those who need a home, and who do not or cannot buy into our curious passion for home ownership. Why can’t we produce social housing that makes homeowners a bit envious?

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