John Harris

Journalist & Author

The housing crisis is at the heart of our national nervous breakdown | John Harris

If we built the houses we needed, the anxieties and fears that motivated the Brexit vote would at last recede

Over the past three years, commentary about the nervous, uncertain condition of Britain has repeatedly veered into questions of “belonging” and community. These things tend to be framed in terms of culture: conversations about whether liberals and leftwingers can speak to people attached to nation and place, angst about flags, understandable fears about the point at which such things blur into nastiness and bigotry. In the process, one crucial point is rather missed. If you are going to talk about whether people feel rooted, and the absolute basics of community, there is one subject that ought to command your attention: that of the basic, primal idea of home, and the fact that far too many people in this country either do not have one, or worry that the one they possess might be about to get snatched away.

It is, in other words, time we talked about our national predicament – and indeed, what might be at stake in the election, whenever it arrives – by acknowledging that housing is a central issue, and always has been. The nitty-gritty of politics is often reduced to the cliche of “schools and hospitals”. But think of the aftermath of each world war, and the great steps forward marked by the concerted building of council houses. Or the way that, post-1979, Thatcherism became hegemonic via the right-to-buy scheme, and the sale of many of those same homes to their occupiers – and then in turn to private landlords, a fact that defines a lot of the dysfunction of modern Britain. And let’s not forget: it was housing that tipped the world into the crash of 2008, when the banks finally confronted the lunacy of sub-prime mortgages, essentially a replacement for the public housing the US – and the UK – had forgotten how to build.

Related: Welcome to Manc-hattan: how the city sold its soul for luxury skyscrapers

if we built the houses we need, the sense of a population often terrified of the future … would at last recede

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