I have long understood that the poor in Lewes are hidden away from general view by being placed in holes. Think if you will (or dare) of the Landport Estate, Winterbourne, the flats tucked between Bradford Road and Leicester Road, centred on Ousedale Close. These are places invisible to the respectable gaze where council tenants have been secreted since time immemorial, the sites of flooding, and formerly the workhouse, madhouse or plague hospital. Of course, successive governments have encouraged these tenants to buy their homes at a discount and then pass them over to the banks when they can’t afford to keep up their mortgage repayments, and some people have done very well out of it, not least unscrupulous mortgage brokers and private landlords. Not, however, the Council, who have had all that money and their housing stock stolen.
New government policy allows local government to borrow more money (at their own – and our – risk) and to build houses. ‘Hooray’ we might cry, thinking that new holes might be dug and the poor placed in them (perhaps even not buried up to their necks this time). Plans have been published. These plans reveal that Lewes District Council intends to build new houses on the site of emergency accommodation for homeless families, on a public toilet, and on a popular community centre. These homes are not to be social housing, however sorely needed to replace the vanished stock they might be, but either houses to be sold at the full, excessive market rate, or ‘affordable’ houses (which in the local context lack only the prefix ‘un’ to bring them into line with reality – “affordable BY WHOM?” one might well ask).
We might wonder why it is that Lewes District Council has chosen to become a property developer like any other, in complete derogation of its moral responsibility and it would seem statutory duty to provide shelter for the homeless. Property developers are not usually popular and do not always make money – sometimes the market turns against them as the history of the Phoenix Estate might tell us. I suspect the justification for this abandonment of social concern would run something like this: we will build houses to sell at market value where the market value is high in order to build social housing in cheaper areas. So now we have a plan which will herd the poor into ghetto-like, substandard, former industrial areas like Newhaven, long since ruined by a brutal roads and thoughtless development where cheap houses can be built. It used to be that even charming villages like Firle and Barcombe had their lines or closes of council bungalows, but this will no longer be permitted. It might offend the wealthy owners of rural houses to feel that the poor were nearby. It might affect their property values, the only thing on which the wealth of the nation is predicated.
I personally deplore the vision of economic apartheid which this policy presents. Like the ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap before it it’s social aim (or trajectory) is to send the poor away from the houses of the wealthy so that they do not spoil the view. That local government should engage in such a policy strikes me as a betrayal of the moral concern which surely should inform the policies of any social housing provider. It is the avowed intention of this government that Britain should become ‘home-owning democracy’. How long before it is suggested that only householders can be considered responsible enough to vote? This was one of the great points in the Putney Debates of 1647. Nowadays we see that attitude returning. Just as with any large company, only shareholders are allowed to vote.
What wonderful new wheezes will they think of next, one wonders? Combined old people’s sheltered accommodation, crematorium and pie shop? Instead of building urgently required council houses for rent at genuinely affordable rates, or even houses that might be for sale at ‘social’ housing levels LDC proposes to build houses for private sale at full market rates just like any other property developer with its eye on the main chance and the bottom line.