Last Monday, Britain’s coalition government took welcome steps toward addressing the country’s housing crisis, by making available over $77 million for the renovation of unoccupied houses. This move comes as part of the government’s Housing Strategy and is a move long overdue given that there are approximately 700,000 unoccupied homes in the country. Nearly $620 million will be used to stimulate work on sites where production stopped mid-construction.
But although Prime Minister David Cameron believes this move will help "unstick" the housing market, the plans are insufficient to meet the annual requirement of 250,000 houses to keep up with the population’s needs. Moreover, as pointed out by the CEO of the homeless charity Shelter, the plans “[do] nothing to address the sky-high costs of housing.”
In a climate of cutbacks and reform to welfare, the coalition needs to go much further to demonstrate its commitment to affordable, accessible housing.
If Monday’s initiatives give cause for guarded optimism, they come alongside a set of counter-intuitive measures that reflect the government’s haphazard and inconsistent approach towards this issue.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which will become law if approved by the House of Lords Committee, will undermine the power of the very people who have been left "stuck" by the property sector. If passed, citizens will no longer have access to the civil legal aid outlined in the (1999) Access to Justice Act, and the most vulnerable tenants will be left without the means to challenge rogue landlords. The House of Lords committee itself warned on November 17 that the bill risks being unconstitutional, as it undermines the principle of universally available justice.
Rather than putting resources towards addressing serious housing need, the Bill adopts an excessive anti-squatting stance, failing to recognize that squatting is more often a symptom of homelessness than a lifestyle choice. Broadly, a squatter is defined as any trespasser who stays in a building “without the authority of the rightful owner/ occupier.” Any squatting that results in the dislocation of others is hard to justify; however, contrary to media representations, recent studies suggest that, typically, squatters move into empty buildings rather than occupied homes. In the investigations undertaken by Kesia Reeves for Crisis (a charity that works to help single, homeless individuals), nobody had opted to go into another person’s property when there was other, suitable housing available.
Cutting legal aid to vulnerable tenants and increasing sanctions against a minority of squatters does little to help those who are most at risk of losing their homes or are struggling to find somewhere to live. The government needs to abandon an agenda that has been overly spurred on by the media and consider more radical solutions. It must investigate how many commercial and industrial buildings are going unused, and why. It should make a concerted attempt to study the true face of homelessness in the country and to accept that in the majority of instances, squatting and homelessness are two sides of the same coin.
George Monbiot of The Guardian may have sparked controversy when he suggested a “big tax penalty for under-occupation” last January, but he at least broadened the terms of the debate on housing. When faced with a crisis of this scale, drawing from a nationally conceived "Bank of Ideas," as demanded by many of the Occupy London protesters, seems more necessary than ever.
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