The management of the city and how it is developed continues to be influenced by the relative few. I would like to explore how property use can deny citizens the ‘right to the city’ by regulating access to and control over urban spaces.
For many people, finding affordable housing to rent in London is difficult, if not impossible. In 1979, 42 per cent of Britons lived in council homes. However, that figure is now just under eight per cent (Telegraph, 2016). Accessing affordable council housing is in decline, whilst the space for private property appears to be continuously rising. An understanding of Thatcher policies in the 1980s sheds light on the current housing crisis.
In the late 1970s, local councils provided affordable housing to more than one third of British society – 600 million homes. Access to council-owned property provided the working class the space to rent affordable housing and build communities that were both hard-working and close-knit. Through the direction of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, much of the UK’s social housing was privatised in the 80s under ‘The Right to Buy’ scheme.
Privatisation of council homes, for many working class families, represented a shift in aspirations. (Dowsett and Hall, 2014). The ‘Right to Buy’ scheme allows those renting a council property the right to buy the home they are living in, at reduced prices. However, the long term effects of privatisation of social housing in the UK has created a system that excludes low and even middle class citizens from the opportunity to access affordable social housing in the city.
More than two million homes have been sold under ‘The Right to Buy’ policy since its inception in the 1980s. However, tables have turned and the proceeds of the sale of council-owned property have not been re-invested to create further affordable council-owned properties to rent. There is an estimated 300,000 more privately-owned properties in London. However, the demand for affordable social housing has not diminished.
There is no doubt that selling off social housing has raised funds, however, the sustainability of this policy is questionable. Selling homes in the city without rebuilding new ones is providing new challenges for young people and those on low incomes. The Conservative party aims to ‘turn generation rent into generation buy’. However, for many living in the city it is essential to have ‘affordable’ council housing, not ‘affordable’ homes that no one can afford.
“The lasting effect of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of social housing in Britain has been to create a rent and price structure throughout metropolitan London that precludes lower-income and even middle-class people from access to accommodation anywhere near the urban centre”. The Right to the City, David Harvey (2008)
Private landlords have profited and have assisted in stigmatising those in need of financial assistance. There are many mechanisms making it hard to live in the city. For instance, local councils, where rent is supposedly affordable, have the power to charge up to 80 per cent of the local market rate under the ‘Affordable Rent’ scheme, making renting unaffordable.
Meanwhile, David Cameron’s bid to revive the ‘Right to Buy scheme’ with the ‘Housing and Planning bill’, according to the Guardian (2016)“ will make private homes even more unaffordable while cutting further the stock of homes available below market rent”.
This method of “urban restructuring…nearly always has a class dimension since it is the poor, the underprivileged and those marginalized from political power that suffer first and foremost from this process” (David Harvey, 2008).
Displacing and disillusioning people, particularly the younger generations, from long established communities and the labour market is regressive. One in five young people is unemployed, with many working below their skill level. Kathleen Kelly (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) makes it clear that “moving people away from community ties will make it harder for them to work. Low-paid workers often rely on a mix of informal and formal support mechanisms to make work possible’ (The Guardian, 2016).
The ‘right to the city’ is a democratic right and is more than just property and profit. It is the right to access, inhabit and help shape urban space. This right is not limited, but a right of all to access affordable and safe housing.
“The fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody”. Discourses of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1754)
About me: Living in London, I am keen to understand the relationship between culture and the city. Using research and group experiences, I aim to bring attention to how urban governance and public spaces impact social inequalities, public health, education and the youth at local, national and international levels.
My interests include history, intersectionality, world politics and global sustainable development.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
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