A War Against the Poor

New housing plans are shutting the poor out of the South-East of England

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, some time in 1998

You might have thought that an environmentalist like me would be glad to hear that far fewer homes than previously planned will be built in the most vulnerable corner of Britain. I’m not. I’m horrified.

Earlier this month, SERPLAN, the committee of local authorities which works out how many houses will need to be built in the South-East of England, announced that their earlier figure could be reduced by 200,000. This is the news that greenbelt campaigners have been praying for. Finally, it seems, the councils have seen sense, and stepped in to manage demand, rather than simply responding to it.

So how did they succeed in reducing the figures so drastically? Have local authorities at last begun to do something about the scourge of second homes? Have they announced an exciting new measure to bring empty houses back into circulation? Well, no. Fewer homes will be needed in the South-East, SERPLAN has decided, because the poor won’t be able to live there.

Rents and mortgages in south-east England, SERPLAN says, will be too high for poor single people to afford. Neither will the government provide sufficient funds to get them housed. The planning system can therefore ignore them. The poor, in SERPLAN’s projections, have ceased to exist.

This might sound like an esoteric concern, for whatever the figures say, the poor won’t disappear, and neither will their need for housing. If a cobweb of bureaucrats on an obscure committee predicts that the government won’t supply enough money, then surely they are simply documenting an unfortunate reality?

But from now onwards, the government has decreed, committees like SERPLAN will be responsible for the guidance which helps determine how many houses will be built and where they should go. If SERPLAN says that the poor will not be housed, in other words, then no provision will be made for them.

It’s not hard to see the attractions that this approach might hold for the county councils on the committee. Lower figures means less pressure on the greenbelt, which in turn means less trouble from campaigners, who are increasingly vocal and well-organized. The single homeless, by contrast, are among the least visible and least influential people of all, and can therefore be safely ignored. If this is, as it seems to be, SERPLAN’s calculation, then it is making a grave mistake.

In one blow, the councils have destroyed the moral authority of their housebuilding plans. New homes were needed in the countryside, councils and government repeatedly told us, because more people would be living by themselves. Without much more provision, many would become homeless. The problem, we were told, would be particularly grave in the South-East, where housing pressure is most intense. “If we fail,” John Prescott wrote, “to provide for household growth, we risk making homes unaffordable and increasing homelessness”. If SERPLAN’s projections are upheld, we’ll get the household growth AND the homelessness.

We should entertain no illusions about what this means. SERPLAN’s reduction will make no impact on the most environmentally-destructive forms of house-building: the “exclusive developments” of four and five bedroom homes with plenty of parking space you can see advertised all over the region. But the inclusive developments which, more modest and less intrusive, house more people while hurting the environment less, will be wiped off the map.

The 500,000 people whom Shelter now records as homeless will be joined by hundreds of thousands more. In the most affluent region of Britain, the single homeless will be confronted by a grisly choice: to throw themselves on the mercy of ever more overburdened local authorities or to sleep on the streets.

SERPLAN’s projections consolidate a crisis in social provision, which neither local authorities nor government seem prepared to address. The government has allowed councils to use more of their money for housing, but most of it will be spent on long-overdue repairs. It has so far shown no inclination to provide the two billion pounds or more that the National Housing Federation says is needed for new affordable homes every year. Blair’s life membership of the Fat Cats Protection League ensures that local authorities will remain forbidden to specify the price range of the houses developers build.

This is how inequality becomes intractable. Under the protective wing of a Labour government, the rich conceal themselves from the poor in ever more exclusive estates. The poor are left to gather like dust in the forgotten recesses neglected by development.