Would Grant Shapps be capable of going to Brazil for two weeks and producing a convincing report on the state of its housing system? I suspect not. Yet a rather remarkable woman from Brazil managed to assess the housing issues we are facing in the UK not only accurately and succinctly but in decidedly human terms, after just a fortnight’s visit. Raquel Rolnik is not a politician, but perhaps British politicians on all sides could take some lessons not only from what she said but also from the refreshing way in which she said it.
Her preliminary report will be followed by a fuller one by next March. In little more than seven pages the present one is hardly likely to be comprehensive, especially as she devotes much of it to the ‘so-called bedroom tax’ (carefully phrased, pace Mr Shapps), which Steve is covering separately. The standpoint she adopts is aptly summarised in one sentence:
‘…the right to adequate housing compels Governments to look beyond aggregated general figures of supply and demand in order to place housing needs – and not housing markets – at the centre of the decision-making.’
Professor Rolnik is careful to explain how she sought to gain an impression of housing need in the UK, which she did not only by studying background reports but by talking to a fairly large number of people in housing need themselves. Some of these were victims of the bedroom tax, such as disabled people or single parents, but others were Gypsies and Travellers, Catholics from Northern Ireland, migrants from the EU and refugees and asylum seekers. A flavour of her approach is given by her conclusion on those penalised by the bedroom tax, who are often ‘on the margins, facing fragility and housing stress, with little extra income to respond to this situation and already barely coping with their expenses’.
As she says, the right to housing is not ‘about a roof anywhere, at any cost, without any social ties’. Nor is it about ‘reshuffling’ people according to how many bedrooms they have at a particular time. If we treat housing in that way we forget its vital role in keeping kids in school, helping people get jobs and sustaining communities that work.
That a professor from Brazil can speak in terms that resonate with people who work in or are tenants of social housing in the UK is not surprising, especially given her practical background and the fact that she talked to real people while she was here. But it’s a depressing contrast with the language used not just by Mr Shapps and the party he represents, but with the current political discourse in Britain, in which the needs of the most marginal groups now hardly figure at all.
Rolnik also has something to say about homeownership. Here she can speak with authority as Brazil (like much of Latin America) has a higher proportion of homeowners than Britain. Yet she far from venerates its importance. She says not only that the government has prioritised it ‘in detriment’ to other tenures but that it has been ‘taken over’ by the financial sector. Who could argue that either of those statements doesn’t apply to Britain since the 1980s?
A further factor that riles her is the cavalier way (although she is too polite to use that word) in which we squander public assets. Not replacing houses sold through the right to buy is one example. Flogging off public land for private development is another. Here is something else at odds with the Westminster discourse: someone who thinks there is a ‘public good’ which should be looked after, not simply handed over to private interests.
Shapps has convinced himself that Rolnik came with a political agenda. I think it’s more accurate to say that she came with a particular mindset: she knows all too well from her experience in Brazil that valuable public assets are created painfully and often in the teeth of obstacles like aversion to taxes and difficulties in collecting them, and corruption among those with access to the public purse. If the assets so laboriously established are in good shape and serving their purpose, why the hell would you flog them off? To do so merely shows a different political mindset, roughly summarised as ‘private=good and public=bad’.
Raquel Rolnik concludes her preliminary report by hoping that the full one will ‘continue the constructive dialogue’ established by her visit. So even in her last sentence she makes a point from which Grant Shapps could learn something. And the overall tone and emphasis of her report should be a lesson to all: there’s nothing like being obliged to see ourselves as others see us.