Housing – A Basic Right or a Means to a Profit?
Paul Martin

Paul Martin

Husband. Dad. Director at PLS Liverpool and PLS Foundation

Housing – A Basic Right or a Means to a Profit?

Surely this is a rhetorical question? Well, no not really. We remain engulfed in a housing crisis, with an estimated 8.4 million people living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable home according to the National Housing Federation.

One way to look at getting out of a crisis is for a precedent. We haven’t seen a housing crisis of this magnitude since 1945, which was borne out of very different circumstances to this one. Between 1945-1955, local councils built around 1 million new homes to alleviate the undersupply. Today, this is a utopia of which we can dream.

Now I’ll shock you a little – we live in a capitalist society in which “supply and demand” carries more weight than “fair and just.” And if you’ll indulge me for a minute or two I’ll take you back to 2007. I was a mortgage broker working in town. I’d walk to work and see cranes all over the place. Liverpool One was under construction. Everyone all of a sudden fancied themselves as a landlord or property developer.

Banks had never had it so good. Demand for mortgages saw interest rates go through the roof. Mortgage lenders, nearly all of them, couldn’t get money out of the door quick enough. House prices rocketed in return.

There were 125% mortgage products, where you could buy a house for £100,000 yet borrow £125,000. “Unlimited Adverse” mortgages, where no matter how many CCJs or missed payments were on your credit file, you could still have whatever you liked.

Self-Certification mortgages. Yep, you could just tell a lender how much you earn, and they’d write you a cheque the next day.

An abstracted, inflated housing market fuelled by greed and avarice. Built on debt. Built on irresponsible lending. Built on capitalism.

In mid 2008, the inevitable happened. Northern Rock collapsed and the housing market fell with it.

By the end of “Culture Year” mortgages were harder to come by. Buyers now needed large deposits of 10% or more. Credit checks became more stringent. Terms became tighter. The banks took their ball and went home.

But it wasn’t bad for everyone. An increased demand on the rented sector has occurred ever since.

We know the rest. Demand up. Fees up. Rent up. Standards miserably down.

When the private sector is asked to tackle a social issue, it often fails. Bar one or two exceptions, the last decade has seen repeated failure.

Last month, I contested the legitimacy of a new House of Multiple Occupation. HMOs epitomise the complicit nature of local authorities towards landlords looking at every way possible way of extracting the maximum return possible on an asset. We should be building homes for those that need them – not shoving them into rabbit hutches. My concerns were dismissed, and the developer was instead praised because the rooms had en-suites. Moral of the story: it’s fine if it’s got its own bog.

Local authorities need to take control of the housing sector once more.  Let’s stop allowing property developers to sit on plots of land while they wait for the “right time” to build. The time is now. We need homes for people to live in now.

We need to rethink how affordability is assessed, taking economic figures bespoke to each area into account. Currently, rule of thumb is 80% of “Open Market value,” that thing that’s already massively abstracted for reasons mentioned above. That’s not affordable – it’s just a bit less greedy.

Currently, a minimum wage employee has to find a large deposit, pay extensive ‘checking fees,’ and pay rent upfront before they wipe their feet.  Some housing associations have addressed this. Most, however, have not.

The city region needs a fit for purpose housing model suitable for the end users.

It can be done. Granby Four Streets attests to that. Homebaked CLT the same.

As a model that gives ownership of the land to the community in trust, CLTs are a vehicle, like cooperatives and other forms of mutual ownership, that offer a template for some future management of the housing question. However, we must reject technocratic leadership, where the interests of the respective “local state” organisations dominate the interests of the community, delivering “units” not a vision.

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston, a USA example of the CLT, emerged from a community’s response to developer intimidation, arson and violence, drawing upon the organising experience of the civil rights movement and becoming an important part of community activism and resistance. Far from submitting to technocratic dominance, DSNI politicises housing and has earned recognition as the legitimate representative of the local community. (Engelsman, Rowe, Southern, 2016)

At the “local state” level, there’s also a need for Local Authorities to take some ownership of the housebuilding process once more. Liverpool has an opportunity to lead the way and revolutionise how housing is done. The blueprint for bad practice has put the city on the front pages of national news. Let’s hope our new mayor, whomever that may be, will change that.

Across the city there are acres and acres of brownfield sites primed for construction. Within this lies a huge opportunity for Local Authorities to create a construction framework, working alongside communities and reputable developers to meet housing and social targets together. You know the reputable developers? They’re the ones that do quirky things like recognise trade unions, pay a living wage and pay their supply chains on time.

Starting from a clean slate, Liverpool can tackle its housing shortage, be an exemplar of affordable housing provision, create communities and kickstart community wealth building.

If there’s a will, we’ll find a way. After all, between 1983 and 1987, an embattled Liverpool City Council managed to fly in the face of the Tories’ infamous “managed decline” and Thatcher’s wider assault on public sector housing to build 4800 new houses and bungalows and re-house 6300 households from sub standard tenements, flats and maisonettes.

“Engels is clear that the housing crisis, is ever present for the working class. It appears as a topic for discussion only when it also becomes a problem for the bourgeoisie, either because of prices and availability or because the ‘diseases’ of the slums begin to infect the bourgeoisie, a parallel that we can also see very clearly today with the Ebola crisis” (Engelsman, Rowe, Southern, 2016). Replace “Ebola” with “Covid-19” and the principle stands firm, almost 150 years since Engels wrote “The Housing Question”.


Engelsman,U. Rowe, M. Southern, A. 2016. Community Land Trusts: A Radical or Reformist Response to The Housing Question Today? ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2016, 15(3): 589-615


No Cuts Liverpool Prior to its recent Budget meeting on 3rd March, Liverpool City Council has undertaken a public consultation into its 2021/22 budget, providing

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