Today, a general debate on ‘delivering new housing supply’ will take place in the House of Commons. The shortage of affordable housing in the UK has become one of the biggest political issues of our time. While an average house could be bought for around £4,000 in 1970, today young people are expected to save for up to two decades in order to scrape together a deposit on a home.
According to Shelter, more than a million households are now on the waiting list for social housing, yet fewer than 7,000 social homes were built last year. Since 1980 the private rented sector – characterised by insecurity, poor conditions and high prices – has more than doubled in size, with ten million people now renting their home from a private landlord. Earlier this year the Centre for Cities put the total shortage of homes in the UK at 4.3 million.
The dominant, neoliberal political culture has adopted a casual approach to these issues. The Conservative Party embraces a rather extreme version of free market economics, whereby even basic essentials such as housing are treated as commodities that can be gambled. MPs who publicly denounce economic and social rights are promoted to Cabinet positions. Since the 1980s it has become politically acceptable for the housing needs of working people to be directly sacrificed for the financial interests of private landlords and property companies. The Labour Party promises support for first-time buyers, but remains relatively quiet on the rights of private and social tenants.
The mainstream media, seemingly unwilling to challenge the dominant political culture, has effectively enabled this financialisation of housing in the UK. Extraordinary house price inflation is reported as if it’s something to be celebrated, rather than a symptom of the deepening crisis in housing supply. Homeownership amongst young people is often framed as a sign of maturity rather than privilege and inherited wealth.
The G15 housing associations have been the subject of constant scandals in the past two years over the poor quality of their homes
In response, housing campaigners often refer to housing as a ‘human right’, and this should be taken literally. The right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right, as set out in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR). This is a core human rights treaty that forms part of the international bill of human rights, which was adopted by the UK and many other states across the world in the post-world war two period. The UK has signed and ratified this treaty, which means it is fully bound by its terms and faces UN scrutiny if it fails to meet its obligations.
Significantly, the authors of the international bill of human rights considered the rights to adequate food, housing, fair working conditions and so on to be as important as civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom from discrimination. The preamble to the ICESCR reads: “The ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.”
Under Article 11 of the ICESCR, the UK is required to “recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Some civil and political rights are considered to be ‘absolute rights’, meaning they can’t be limited or restricted in any way.
Rights under the ICESCR are not absolute, however, under Article 2 state parties do have a responsibility to “progressively realise” economic, social and cultural rights “to the maximum of its available resources”. In other words, while some developing nations may have a genuine excuse for not providing all citizens with adequate housing, a wealthy, developed nation like the UK has full responsibility to ensure that everyone can access adequate housing.
In 2013, then-UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Raquel Rolnik completed an official visit to the UK. She reported finding “signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing,” with the most vulnerable people “bearing the brunt” of this decline. Rolnik also noted that “the takeover of the housing sector by the financial sector has exposed many households to a highly volatile market.” She criticised specific policies, such as the bedroom tax and housing benefit cap, and urged the government to “place housing needs – and not housing markets – at the centre of the decision-making.”
The UK is currently undergoing its seventh periodic review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (CESCR). At the sixth review in 2016, the UN levelled many criticisms at the UK, including its failure to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights into domestic legislation, which would make it possible for people to seek legal redress when their right to adequate housing is violated. A group of NGOs led by Just Fair recently submitted evidence to the CESCR, highlighting a broad range of current issues relating to housing supply, quality and security in the UK.
With a shortfall of 4.3 million homes and reports of widespread inhumane conditions for social and private tenants, it’s unlikely the UN’s seventh periodic review will go in the UK’s favour. However, on a domestic level, it’s the political culture that really has the power to influence housing policy. In today’s housing supply debate in the House of Commons, will the phrase ‘right to adequate housing’ even be mentioned? Or will it be dominated by talk of assets, inflation, incentives and market movements? Only one of these narratives can help us move closer to a political culture where the housing needs of every citizen are met.