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Vicky Spratt
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How did things get this bad? On the frontlines of the UK housing crisis

Journalist Vicky Spratt calls for a radical overhaul of the housing system in her new book, Tenants. Here, she talks about renter’s rights, Grenfell, and Britain’s ‘psychopathic’ obsession with property

Unsafe living conditions, astronomical rents and unattainable house prices, mounting waiting lists for social housing, and hidden homelessness. This is the housing system’s new normal, in one of the richest nations in the world.

Drawing on personal experiences from across the country, journalist and housing correspondent Vicky Spratt reveals how our dysfunctional housing system is causing dire consequences for people of all ages and backgrounds in her new book, Tenants: The People on The Front Line of Britain’s Housing Emergency.

Collating her research on Britain’s housing policies with in-person interviews, Tenants calls for a radical reimagination of the housing system in order to create a world where housing is a universal human right. To mark the release of her book, we spoke to Spratt about the issues that inspired it.

In Tenants, you reveal how within our current housing system, the government essentially pay unqualified individuals – AKA private landlords – to house people. How did this come to be our housing system?

Vicky Spratt: This has its roots in the 20th century after the First World War, because lots of landlords were trying to profit from the war and from demand for housing in areas near ammunition factories. Then in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies there was mass building of social housing at scale. This was such a huge moment for our country in terms of the evolution of the welfare state – to suddenly have this new, good quality, affordable municipal housing. We ended up with rent control, but in the eighties all of that was taken away by the 1988 Housing Act, which basically rebalanced the private rented sector in favour of landlords and away from renters. Then we had the introduction of Right to Buy – also under Thatcher – and since then we have sold off more social homes than we have replaced, so now we have a deficit.

Now, the other piece of the puzzle that’s brought us to where we are now is what’s been going on with house price inflation. What that has done is made it harder for people on low incomes or first-time buyers with small deposits to buy homes of their own. So, that, combined with the social housing shortage, has pushed more and more people into private renting. But of course, private renting has been deregulated in favour of landlords, so those people are less protected than they once would have been.

One thing you demonstrate so well in the book is that renting has become this inescapable trap for so many of us. How does the housing system need to change in order for renting to become something that is stable and secure?

Vicky Spratt: I think because this is so urgent and people’s lives are being ruined right now, we have to think about immediate fixes. These are: regulating the private rental sector, making sure that renters have rights, that they can’t be evicted very easily, making sure that landlords have to carry out repairs, and also regulating rents.

As well as house prices reaching record highs throughout the pandemic, private rents have been doing the same. Wages, of course, are not keeping up. So we’ve got this rent inflation, which is not matched by wage inflation. I’m hearing from people all the time who are having to make desperate choices between paying their bills and paying their rent. These are the kind of stories that you read about in The Condition of The Working Class in England, when Marx and Engels were coming here to look at poverty back in the 1800s and early 1900s. Regulating the private rental sector is so urgent, that has to be a priority, but of course, that’s short-term.

You argue in the book that housing needs to be reframed as a fundamental right rather than a commodity. Why is this so vital?

Vicky Spratt: What we’re talking about here are people’s homes, the provision of something so basic that you cannot function, you cannot live, you cannot survive without it. But for some reason, we’ve bought into the problem. I think on some level, lots of people believe that if they just get on the housing ladder, they could get rich overnight.

“Because this is so urgent and people’s lives are being ruined right now, we have to think about immediate fixes” – Vicky Spratt

Often when we kind of talk about the housing crisis, it’s often imagined as an issue specific to the South East and London, but your book really highlighted that the impacts of the housing crisis are being experienced by people all over the country. Where does that misconception come from?

Vicky Spratt: For a long time the housing crisis was most acute in London and the South East, if what you’re talking about is unaffordable rents and high house prices. But of course, it’s equally acute in other places, particularly at the moment, because of the rising rents that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic.

But honestly, I think it’s probably a lot of lazy journalism. I think people relate to things when they see themselves in it and journalists are not immune to that. There was a lot of very good regional reporting over the years on what different areas across the country were experiencing, but I think the mainstream narrative was set in the newsrooms of London by people who were worried about what was going on with the property market near them. A lot of the focus was on how young people can’t buy a house, but it’s not just that young middle-class people can’t buy houses. There also isn’t enough social housing and rents are too high, and actually being able to report on that is really important.

Just this month, the Prime Minister confirmed his plan to extend Right to Buy, which you criticise in the book. Despite the name sounding very desirable and appealing, why is this decision so fatal?

Vicky Spratt: Right to Buy, as you correctly note, is an incredibly well-thought-through policy in that it sounds good. And it was actually originally a Labour idea before it became a Conservative policy. The question to ask here is: why? And the answer is, if you create homeowners and you give people something that makes them feel like they have a stake in democracy, then they’ll probably keep voting for you. But it has decimated housing and left us in a really, really terrible situation. Is selling off social housing more – as Boris Johnson wants to do – without being clear about how we’re going to replace it the right thing to do? I don’t think so.

In the book, you highlight countries that show genuine commitment to universal housing provision – such as Germany, where landlords can’t evict people without a legally valid reason. How and why is the UK an anomaly in this?

Vicky Spratt: The government is proposing some change on this front, but of course, legislation takes a long time, so we’re in a situation right now where renters can be evicted at any time without their landlord having to give them a reason. Germany is not perfect, but there are more protections for renters, and in France too. For some reason, in Britain, we have this almost psychopathic belief in the rights of property owners to do whatever they want, even if that is exploiting other human beings and putting them in danger. Look at the Grenfell Inquiry fallout and how these businesses and the state all behaved abominably. People were worried that if there was a fire in Grenfell Tower, that they would die, and then there was a fire and people did die.

You call for a radically different politics; one that is rooted in compassion and love. Why is this so essential in reimagining and building the housing system that everyone deserves?

Vicky Spratt: I think it would be easy to dismiss that as sentimental or naive. But what I see when I’m interviewing people, and at events in Westminster or at political party conferences, is that we’ve really detached from what politics is for – and that is to make sure that people are OK. But people are not OK. How can you justify the decisions that are made? If you don’t relate to people as human beings, I imagine it’s a lot easier. There’s a long, rich intellectual history of the idea of compassion and civic love as a political force, and I think we would do well to draw on that. 

We can also think about the politics of coalition, which is not just being self-serving and thinking about what we need, but it’s looking around you who’s in a similar situation to me – and it might be people you don't expect to be in a similar situation to you – and asking what they need. 

I do think when you start breaking it down, you realise how the enshrining of the rights of individuals has so often come at the expense of collective good and of community. It’s really important to think beyond what has been normalised in Britain, which is the rights of property owners, not the rights of communities. Another thing I really wanted to get across in the book is the people who are impacted by the housing crisis aren’t always the people you think. This is about old and young, people on very low incomes, low incomes, middle high middle incomes. This is one of the problems with the ‘Generation Rent’ narrative – if we only care about white middle-class millennials then we’re missing a huge part of this story, and in missing that part of the story, we also miss out on the solutions.

Tenants: The People on The Front Line of Britain’s Housing Emergency is out now on Profile Books.