This text was originally published by the Academy of Ideas at University of Buckingham in the People’s Lockdown Inquirer, a book-length report documenting the impact of lockdown restrictions on UK government, media, health, care homes, social work, education, schools, universities, children, the economy, work, industries, housing, prisons, transport, culture, arts, sport, society, rights and freedoms. The report was launched on 14 June, 2021, when these restrictions were scheduled to be lifted by the UK Government. A month later, the UK public is still living under lockdown, and the legislation and state apparatus for imposing it on us in the future are still in place.
The Government-imposed lockdown of the UK in 2020-2021 has had a ruinous effect on UK housing, but the transformation of the home under coronavirus-justified regulations and programmes will have a far worse impact in the future, fundamentally changing our status as citizens under UK law. After the financial crisis of 2008, the UK Government promoted the lie that ‘we’re all in this together’ while imposing a fiscal policy of austerity that continues to impoverish the poorest members of our society. Twelve years later, the Government has responded to the coronavirus with an unprecedented level of propaganda that characterises this crisis as a great leveller which the British people are united in combating. The truth, however, is the exact opposite. While capitalising on this crisis to outsource more functions of the UK state to its corporate partners, the Government has taken this opportunity to vastly increase its own powers to monitor and control the lives of British people in perpetuity. As expected of a country in which the single largest fixed monthly expenditure for most households is on the costs of accommodation, housing is at the heart of this transition to what is already the most authoritarian state in British history, the effects of which are widening the already-existing inequalities in UK society. Here we list some of the negative effects the lockdown has had on UK housing, while making some predictions about the future that awaits us.
1. The Increase in Housing Poverty and Homelessness
It’s necessary to state what should be obvious: that the physical and mental health of those who live in overcrowded, noisy or badly-maintained accommodation, in which amenities are shared or missing, will suffer from residents being confined to their homes for months on end far more than those who live in spacious, quiet residences, with access to private or communal gardens and amenities like gyms, play areas for children and separate rooms for work or study. The result has been increased stress for working-class families already living under austerity. In June 2020, a mere 3 months into lockdown, there were 98,300 households, including 127,240 children, living in temporary accommodation in England, a rise of 14 per cent from June 2019. Although the number of people living in bed-and-breakfasts, hostels and private-rented rooms has increased every year in the UK over the last decade, this sudden jump in numbers is a product of the breakdown in household relationships and loss of livelihoods caused by the lockdown, and is likely to continue at an exponential rate in 2021.
The worst consequences of the unequal conditions under which lockdown has been imposed has been the more than 50,000 excess deaths that, as of March 2021, occurred in private homes in England and Wales in the year since lockdown, just over 7,000 of which were attributed to COVID-19. In addition, there were over 26,000 excess deaths in care homes, for which there is strong evidence to suggest that elderly and vulnerable residents being isolated from each other, their carers and their families is responsible for thousands of deaths from dementia and other health conditions exacerbated by lockdown and erroneously attributed to COVID-19.
8.4 million households in England, 36 per cent of the population, rent from a private or social landlord, and the effects on them of lockdown are far worse compared with mortgagors and home owners. Those who have lost their jobs because of the ongoing attempts to bankrupt small businesses by the corporate beneficiaries of lockdown are already living in housing precarity, and will face homelessness when an already inadequate furlough is withdrawn altogether. As of September 2020, 8 per cent of private renters and 7 per cent of social renters had lost their jobs under lockdown, and 9 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively, had been furloughed. In comparison, only 3 per cent of mortgagors had lost their jobs and 6 per cent were on furlough, while home owners have been unaffected. The effect of this on housing has been drastic. In November-December 2019, 7 per cent of renters in the private sector were living in overcrowded accommodation, while a year later that figure had more than doubled to 15 per cent, an estimated 570,000 renters. In comparison, just 2 per cent of home-owners were living in overcrowded accommodation.
While workers have had their right to work, under Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, suspended indefinitely by lockdown, the Government hasn’t seen fit to suspend the right of landlords to collect rent from those unemployed workers. As a result, in January 2021, over 750,000 families were behind with their housing payments, 300,000 of which contained dependent children. This was twice the level of arrears before the first lockdown a year ago, the costs of which, once again, are unevenly borne, with 9 per cent of all households in the social-rented sector, 6 per cent in the private-rented sector, and just 2 per cent of mortgagors, in arrears.
In response, the Government has only temporarily deferred the wave of evictions that will result from this unequal distribution of the economic costs of lockdown while refusing to address its long-term consequences. With the moratorium on evictions initially ending in September 2020, and the requirement for landlords to give tenants in arrears a minimum 6 months’ notice of repossession only extended until the end of May, at the end of last year it was estimated that 445,000 renters in the private sector were facing eviction in 2021. Since the first lockdown, an estimated 694,000 households in the private rental sector have received a Section 21 no-fault eviction notice. This March, 27 per cent of private renters, 2.2 million people, said they feared becoming homeless.
Local authorities have taken the opportunity granted by Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 to withdraw even the token consultations they were obliged to conduct prior to this crisis when making unilateral decisions about the homes of council housing residents. This has resulted in less accountability and public scrutiny in, most notably, councils pushing through estate demolition schemes that will result in the loss of thousands of homes for social rent when they are most needed. The London Mayor’s recent decision to withdraw funding to replace council homes demolished by such schemes will ensure their replacements are properties for market sale or shared ownership. As if that weren’t enough, the Government’s recent changes to the sale of council housing, the receipts from which councils will now be able to invest in subsidising home-purchase rather than building council housing, will only exacerbate the already disastrous effects of this scheme.
Finally, because of financial uncertainty in the building industry, in the first three quarters of 2020, just under 96,000 new homes were built in England, less than a third of the Government’s stated target of 300,000 homes per year over this decade. With the Chancellor having made it clear in his 2021 Budget that the enormous financial cost of lockdown, with debt set to peak at 97.1 per cent of GDP in 2023-24, will be paid in equally huge cuts to public spending, the reduction in the already inadequate investment for social housing will lead to a further exacerbation of the crisis of housing affordability in the UK.
2. The Transformation of the Home
Beyond this exacerbation of housing inequality, however, there is the transformation of the home being affected by the coronavirus-justified regulations, programmes and technologies of the emerging UK biosecurity state; and it’s in the expansion of this new and increasingly authoritarian form of government that the lockdown will have its greatest impact on housing.
Under the arbitrary dictates of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which sets the alert levels determining the degree of freedom under which the UK population lives, the home has already been transformed from one of the few remaining private spaces into the first line of state biosecurity. Government guidance to ‘work from home’, although lacking any legislative power, has been obediently embraced by the economic classes able to do so; and under the global banner of ‘Building Back Better’ numerous professions — architects, designers, lawyers and developers — have responded by designing coronavirus-justified regulations into the fabric of the built environment, thereby transforming temporary restrictions to our rights and freedoms into permanent systems of control it will be very difficult to build out.
Not the least decisive of these is the transformation of the home into a ‘COVID-secure’ office space in which the only interaction with the world outside is through a screen and the digital platforms of the immensely powerful tech companies promoting the fear on which lockdown has been obeyed. But under coronavirus-justified legislation, the home has also been transformed into a quarantine cell to which those who venture outside risk being confined on the arbitrary results of a testing programme denounced by scientists across the globe as unfit for any purpose other than to justify lockdown.
The global crisis of housing affordability, whose financial centre since 2008 has been London, has shown how contingent the rights of citizenship are upon access to housing. Under lockdown, our access to public life and citizenship is on the verge of being made contingent upon compliance with an experimental vaccine programme that will be monitored by digital identity passports whose control over our lives in the future is without limit. US property technology companies were quick to use the threat of COVID-19 to implement biometric access controls and facial recognition entry systems to screen tenants in buildings with restricted access. It would be naive to think that our entry into and departure from what we formerly regarded as the private space of the home will not be similarly subject to the same systems of surveillance and control in the UK.
By the simple expedient of making digitally-controlled access to a council or social housing estate, private apartment block or gated community contingent upon the requirement to provide our regularly updated biometric data, compliance with whatever biosecurity regulations are imposed in the future may replace our credit rating as the final arbiter of who has access to housing in the UK. Connect such access to a universal basic income on which the millions of UK citizens impoverished by lockdown will rely in place of the withdrawn furlough, and the system of social credit being implemented in China will be the likely next step in our descent into what we can call, without exaggeration, a totalitarian society in the making.
The only positive outcome from the ongoing lockdown that we can predict is that UK property, particularly in the inner cities, may become less attractive as the investment opportunity for global capital that created the UK housing crisis; and that housing policy will instead be made to provide homes in which UK citizens can afford to live. At present, however, the political will to do so is lacking in both Government and Parliament. Unfortunately, the same lack of will defines the private sector. As it has done throughout the housing crisis, the architectural profession and other groups in the building industry have sought to capitalise on the coronavirus crisis, rather than challenging the justifications for normalising its effects on housing and the built environment.
The UK housing crisis showed us that homelessness is not an unfortunate result of the failure of housing policy to house UK citizens, but rather the product of that policy’s success in attracting global investment in UK land and property. It is our opinion that, far from being the regrettable consequence of the failure of coronavirus-justified programmes and regulations, the Government’s lockdown of the UK population is the product of their success in implementing our transition into the UK biosecurity state.
However, for as long as our access to public spaces and services is prohibited by lockdown restrictions, monitored by the tiered system of population control and enforced by the expanding powers of the police, the home will be the new meeting place for those who refuse to comply with the regulations and programmes of the UK biosecurity state. It is our hope that, from these covert meetings, resistance will find a place to form and organise away from the surveillance technology in whose intrusion into our private lives the UK led the world even before the more than 460 coronavirus-justified regulations made into law over the past year. From that resistance, the people of the UK can start to claim back what we have so meekly allowed to be taken from us on the justification of this manufactured threat to public health — our rights and freedoms under British law. The home will be at the heart of this struggle.
Architects for Social Housing
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