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Britain’s housing crisis — no longer a nation of homeowners?

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In the UK, many people on lower incomes struggle to find secure housing © Andrew Testa/Panos Pictures

In 1923 Noel Skelton, the Scottish Unionist politician and Conservative thinker, wrote that in order to make democracy stable, government needed to promote “a property-owning democracy”. This would be able to meet the rise of socialism with “constructive conservatism”, which would expand and protect the interests of property.

A century later, Skelton’s views on home ownership remain acutely relevant. Among the scores of promises being offered in the current contest to be the next leader of the Conservative party — and thus UK prime minister — are pledges to make it easier for “Generation Rent” to get on to the housing ladder. Both candidates claim to be the true heir to Margaret Thatcher, whose “Right to Buy” policy was one of the defining policies of her long tenure in Downing Street from 1979-90. Very much in the Skelton mode, Right to Buy aimed to create such a property-owning democracy by giving tenants in local-authority housing substantial discounts so that they could buy their own homes.

Today, a combination of house price inflation fuelled by central bank quantitative easing, alongside austerity and the unintended consequences of Right to Buy, has turned that dream on its head. Right to Buy was a remarkable success in that it led to the sale of more than 2mn homes and resulted in an immediate transfer of wealth. But one of its direct, longer-term consequences has been that, rather than increasing home ownership, it contributed to the rapid growth of an under-regulated and precarious private rented sector.

In 1979, more than a third of people in England lived in council housing built, owned and administered by local government. Now, more than 40 per cent of the council homes bought under Right to Buy have been sold on to private landlords, who rent them out at three or four times the price of an equivalent property in the social housing sector. The result is that, in many parts of the country, private renting is unaffordable for those on lower and even middle incomes, excluding people from the market and leading to a continuous cycle of eviction. At the same time, a comparison of 35 European countries ranks the UK among the lowest 20 per cent in terms of home ownership, putting paid to the myth that the British are a nation of homeowners.

Book cover of Tenants

A number of new books capture this reality. In a welcome break with the well-worn stereotypes of writing about property and housing — breathless descriptions of accelerating prices or the dead prose of jargon-laden policy briefs — they look instead at the human experience of being forced to move, which has become an ever-present reality that colours daily life for the 11mn people who make up Britain’s population of private renters.

In Tenants, Vicky Spratt’s shocking and incisive indictment of private renting in Britain, she describes how functional and productive lives unravel as people lose their homes, sense of self and feeling of belonging in the world.

The case studies are shocking and sobering. Limarra, with her two degrees and job as a manager, was looking to progress into HR, to provide a secure base for her seven-year-old daughter. When her landlord notified her that he would be selling the south London flat where she had lived for nearly a decade, her life spiralled out of control.

Unable to afford another place, she had to turn to the council for help. But in order to qualify for assistance, she needed to prove that she was not “intentionally homeless”; this meant she had to wait for the landlord to issue her with a possession order through the courts, which took nearly a year. Having to wait to be evicted from her home was so damaging to her mental health that she was signed off work with severe anxiety and depression and was later hospitalised after taking an overdose.

When she was finally offered housing it was outside London, far from her daughter’s school and her mother, her only source of childcare. When she broke down in tears and asked how she would get her daughter to school, the placement officer told her to “get up earlier”. She and her daughter now live with her mother, the two of them sleeping in the living room and joining the ranks of the hidden homeless.

Book cover of A Home of One’s Own

Tenants is packed with powerful narratives but also puts forward a number of policy alternatives. One of these is Housing First, which was developed in New York and which has transformed housing policy in a number of European countries, including Finland, the Netherlands and Austria. The policy, which is now being trialled in the UK, is aimed at the homeless and is premised on the provision of a home regardless of employment or addiction.

But Spratt believes that the guiding principle, of providing secure housing to people, should be extended across the private rented sector. This would help to counter the pernicious effects of the 1988 Housing Act, which introduced assured short-hold tenancies and left Britain with a legacy of allowing some of the shortest lets in the world — at just six months — paralleled only by Australia. Like Spratt’s book, barrister Hashi Mohamed’s beautifully written A Home of One’s Own emphasises the emotional fallout of constantly having to move, describing the sense of helplessness his family faced, with no control over the most significant aspect of their lives.

Living in a state of housing instability overlaps with homelessness, with many people, like Limarra, classed as homeless even though they have a roof — albeit an inadequate one — over their head. Daniel Lavelle’s raw and compelling memoir, Down and Out, brings together precarity in private renting with street homelessness as he details his horrifying and abusive experiences of the care system and his inevitable descent into rough sleeping, addiction and homelessness. Lavelle describes himself as one of the lucky ones, who managed to get out, when many of those close to him didn’t. But even now, as a successful journalist, he has been evicted from two homes by two different landlords and his housing remains insecure.

Book cover of The Prince Rupert Hotel for the homeless

Finding herself unable to travel due to the pandemic, Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb turned her attention closer to home. The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless is the story of how a historic hotel in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, found itself providing the local homeless population with somewhere to live for a year, as part of the government’s emergency “Everyone In” initiative.

Lamb’s compassionate and compelling narrative is heartwarming but doesn’t scrimp on the challenges faced. The family atmosphere unexpectedly created by hotel staff more accustomed to upscale guests sits alongside drug taking in the rooms, ambulances and fights, but the overwhelming message is that when the political will is there to house people, it can and does happen. As Spratt says, the Conservatives’ previous promise to end street homelessness by 2027 was rushed through by “Everyone In” in 10 days.

When Spratt, who is the housing correspondent of the i newspaper, was starting out in journalism, she worked as a junior producer at the BBC. One day she suggested that they might want to run more stories on housing, only to be told dismissively by her editor that “it’s just not that interesting”.

It’s a response I’m familiar with. Embarking on a career in journalism I alighted on housing as a vital social policy area that seemed to receive little coverage. I soon realised why: where once pretty much every newspaper had a housing correspondent, now they were filled to bursting with property supplements. Housing had been relegated to poor housing.

Book cover of Down and Out

These books reveal a shift away from the property-boom approach to housing. All are based on myriad human stories which show that having a home is a central aspect of people’s lives and a cornerstone of trust in society and its institutions. The shifting nature of the discourse around the housing crisis is significant as, combined with the success of radically different approaches such as Everyone In and Housing First, they herald a real possibility of change.

The narratives also highlight that it’s a change which seems to have permeated the highest levels of government. Michael Gove, until recently UK secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, lambasted volume housebuilders as operating a cartel with unhappy consequences and condemned the poor quality of much of the private rented sector. In language a world away from more familiar Conservative rhetoric on housing, he repeatedly made it clear that far more social housing is needed — a stance echoed by the opposition Labour party.

Yet, like so many of his predecessors, Gove was only in post briefly, and weakness of leadership at the top is identified as a key barrier, with 12 housing ministers since 2010. There is also frustration that cross-party support for a land value tax, recommended by separate government inquiries by both parties and supported by many economists, has not been taken up. As the housing crisis blights ever more lives, the nature of the debate is shifting fundamentally, but whether the current political climate can action that readiness for change is another question.

Anna Minton is the author of ‘Big Capital: Who Is London for?’ (Penguin) and reader in architecture at the University of East London

Tenants: The People on the Frontline of Britain’s Housing Emergency by Vicky Spratt, Profile Books £20, 352 pages

A Home of One’s Own by Hashi Mohamed, Profile Books £5.99, 160 pages

The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless: A True Story of Love and Compassion Amid a Pandemic by Christina Lamb, William Collins £20, 320 pages

Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis by Daniel Lavelle, Wildfire £18.99, 304 pages

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US steps up pressure on European allies to harden China stance

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The US is pushing its European allies to take a harder stance towards Beijing as it tries to leverage its position on Ukraine to gain more support from Nato countries for its efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.

According to people briefed on conversations between the US and its Nato allies, Washington has in recent weeks lobbied members of the transatlantic alliance to toughen up their language on China and to start working on concrete action to restrain Beijing.

US president Joe Biden identified countering China as his main foreign policy goal at the start of his administration, but his efforts have been complicated by the focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

But with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion in its 10th month, Washington was making a concerted effort to push China back up Nato’s agenda, the people said.

They said the US was trying to leverage the action it had been taking on Ukraine — including being the largest supplier of weapons and aid for Kyiv — into more concrete support for its policies in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The shift from the Americans on this has been noticeable,” said one of the people, all of whom declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. “It’s really quite clear that they have decided now is the time to move on this.”

Asked about the push, a senior US official noted that Nato agreed on a new “strategic concept” in June that “addressed the systemic challenges” posed by China. “Our conversations on these issues continue,” the official added.

Referring to the 30 Nato allies endorsing the new concept at a summit in Madrid in June, a US state department official said Nato foreign ministers would “address ways to strengthen our resilience and the challenges posed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China]” at their ministerial meeting in Bucharest, Romania, this week.

“We deeply value and encourage a united European approach to China,” the official added.

Coordinating Nato members’ approaches to China is high on the list of topics to be discussed at the two-day meeting, which starts on Tuesday.

“What we have begun doing across the Nato alliance is to think about ways in which the alliance can address that challenge [from China] in concrete terms,” Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, said on Monday.

“Allies [will] look to implement what they signed up to,” she added, “to move from what we call assessing the problem to addressing the problem.”

The ministers will discuss a new report on China, designed to harden the stance of the alliance, which in June identified Beijing as a “challenge” to its “interests, security and values” for the first time.

The report would address China’s military development, its efforts to exert influence on Nato members and third countries, and Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, officials said.

But many European allies are anxious the discussions might distract from what they view as the more pressing need to cement unwavering support for Ukraine.

In addition, while the EU is also assessing ways to toughen up its trade relations with China, the vast majority of Nato countries including Germany and France are reluctant to fully align their China postures with that of Washington.

“Let’s say that the United States has a certain tendency to be prescriptive, not just on China but about everything,” said a senior EU official, who suggested Europe would ultimately align closer to the US position. “Will we become, let’s say, completely isolated and in the middle between China and the United States? I don’t think so.”

While Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced the White House to step up its commitment to European defence, the US has made clear that this is a temporary respite from a long-term shift to countering China as its main strategic defence and security policy.

Last month, the Biden administration released its national security strategy, which made clear that China was the security priority over Russia, despite the latter’s “immediate and ongoing” threat.

Canada on Sunday announced its first Indo-Pacific strategy, outlining new spending to deal with a “disruptive” China.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Beijing was “not an adversary” but stressed the alliance had to respond to China’s military modernisation, collaboration with Russia and attempts to “control critical infrastructure in Europe”.

“So all of this makes it necessary for allies to address this together,” he told reporters. “And that’s exactly what we will do when we meet in Bucharest.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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Proud, Scared and Conflicted. What the China Protesters Told Me.

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They went to their first demonstrations. They chanted their first protest slogans. They had their first encounters with the police.

Then they went home, shivering in disbelief at how they had challenged the most powerful authoritarian government in the world and the most iron-fisted leader China has seen in decades.

Young Chinese are protesting the country’s harsh “zero-Covid” policy and even urging its top leader, Xi Jinping, to step down. It’s something China hasn’t seen since 1989, when the ruling Communist Party brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrators, mostly college students. No matter what happens in the days and weeks ahead, the young protesters presented a new threat to the rule of Mr. Xi, who has eliminated his political opponents and cracked down on any voice that challenges his rule.

Such public dissent was unimaginable until a few days ago. These same young people, when they mentioned Mr. Xi online, used euphemisms like “X,” “he” or “that person,” afraid to even utter the president’s name. They put up with whatever the government put them through: harsh pandemic restrictions, high unemployment rates, fewer books available to read, movies to watch and games to play.

Then something cracked.

After nearly three long years of “zero Covid,” which has turned into a political campaign for Mr. Xi, China’s future looks increasingly bleak. The economy is in its worst shape in decades. Mr. Xi’s foreign policy has antagonized many countries. His censorship policy, in addition to quashing challenges to his authority, has killed nearly all fun.

As a popular Weibo post put it, Chinese people are getting by with books published 20 years ago, music released a decade ago, travel photos from five years ago, income earned last year, frozen dumplings from a lockdown three months ago, Covid tests from yesterday, and a freshly baked Soviet joke from today.

“I think all of these have reached a tipping point,” said Miranda, a journalist in Shanghai who participated in the protest on Saturday evening. “If you don’t do anything about it, you could really explode.”

In the last few days, in interviews with more than a dozen young people who protested in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, I heard of a burst of pent-up anger and frustration with how the government implements “zero Covid.” But their anger and despair goes beyond that, all the way to questioning the rule of Mr. Xi.

Two of these people said that they don’t plan to have children, a new way to protest among young Chinese at a time when Beijing is encouraging more births. At least four of the protesters said that they were planning to emigrate. One of them refused to look for a job after being laid off by a video-game company in the aftermath of a government crackdown on the industry last year.

They went to the protests because they wanted to let the government know how they felt about being tested constantly, locked inside their apartments or kept away from family and friends in the Covid dragnet. And they wanted to show solidarity for fellow protesters.

They are members of a generation known as Mr. Xi’s children, the nationalistic “little pinks” who defend China on Weibo, Facebook and Twitter. The protesters represent a small percentage of Chinese in their 20s and early 30s. By standing up to the government, they defied the perception of their generation. Some older Chinese people said that the protesters made them feel more hopeful about the country’s future.

Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist known under her pen name Jiang Xue, wrote on Twitter that she was moved to tears by the bravery of the protesters. “It’s hard for people who haven’t lived in China in the past three to four years to imagine how much fear these people had to overcome to take to the streets, to shout, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’” she wrote. “Amazing. Love you all!”

As first time marchers, most of them did not know what to expect. A Beijing protester said that she was so tense that she felt physically and emotionally exhausted the next day. More than one person told me that they needed a day to collect their thoughts before they could talk. At least three cried in our interviews.

They are proud, scared and conflicted about their experiences. They have different views about how politically explicit their slogans should be, but they all said that they found shouting the slogans cathartic.

Miranda, who has been a journalist for eight years, said that she couldn’t stop crying when she shouted with the crowd, “freedom of speech” and “freedom of press.” “It was the freest moment since I became a journalist,” she said, her voice cracking.

All the people I interviewed asked me to use only their first name, family name or English name to protect their safety. They had felt a relative safety when marching with others just days earlier, but none dared to put their name to comments that would be published.

The slogans that they recalled chanting were all over the place, illustrating the wide frustration with their lives. “End the lockdown!” “Freedom of speech!” “Give back my movies!”

Quite a few of them were taken aback by how political the Saturday protest in Shanghai turned out to be.

They were equally surprised, if not more, when more people returned on Sunday to request the release of protesters who had been detained hours earlier.

All six Shanghai protesters I spoke with thought that they were going to a vigil on Saturday evening for the 10 victims who died in a fire Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in China’s west. In the beginning, the atmosphere was relaxed.

When someone first chanted, “No more Communist Party,” the crowd laughed, according to Serena, a college student who is spending her gap year in Shanghai. “Everyone knew it was the redline,” she said.

Then it became increasingly charged. When someone yelled, “Xi Jinping, step down!” and “C.C.P., step down!” the shouts were the loudest, according to Serena and other protesters who were also there.

In Beijing, a marketing professional in her mid-20s with the surname Wu told her fellow protesters not to shout those politically explicit slogans because that would guarantee a crackdown. Instead, she shouted slogans that urged the government to implement the rule of law and release detained Shanghai protesters.

A protester in Chengdu and one in Guangzhou, separated by 1,000 miles, both said that they were stopped from shouting slogans that other demonstrators deemed too political and were told to stick to the Covid-related demands.

For many of them, this weekend was their first brush with the police. A protester named Xiaoli in Chengdu said that she had never seen so many police in her life. After being chased by them, she said that she could hear her heart beating fast when she passed by officers on her way home.

It was clear that many protesters blame Mr. Xi for the extremely unpopular “zero-Covid” policy. A young Shanghai professional with the surname Zhang said that Mr. Xi’s norm-breaking third term, secured at last month’s party congress, spelled the end of China’s progress. “We all gave up our illusions,” he said.

He cried when he mentioned an old man’s question during this year’s Shanghai lockdown, “Why has our country come to this?” Mr. Zhang, who said that he grew up poor in a village, was grateful for the government’s assistance in his education. “I thought we would only move upward,” he added.

The young protesters are most conflicted about the impact of their actions. They felt powerless about changing the system as long as Mr. Xi and the Communist Party are in power. They believe that many people in the public supported them because the unyielding Covid rules have violated what they see as baseline norms of Chinese society. Once the government relaxes the policy, they worry, the public’s support for protests would evaporate.

At the same time, some of them argued that their protests would make the public aware of their rights.

No one knows what the protests will become — a moment in history, or a footnote. The official state media has kept quiet, though some pro-government social media bloggers have pointed fingers at “foreign forces.” Police have enhanced their presence on the streets and called or visited protesters in an attempt to intimidate them.

I asked Bruce, a Shanghai finance worker in his 20s, whether the protests meant that people have changed their view of Mr. Xi. He responded, “It was probably not because the public’s opinion of him changed, but because those who are critical of him have spoken up.”

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‘Golden era’ for Britain and China’s relationship is over, UK PM Rishi Sunak says

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Sunak’s comments come shortly after groups of people across China held public demonstrations to protest the country’s stringent zero-Covid policy.

Daniel Leal | Afp | Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the so-called “golden era” of relations with China was over, warning that Beijing’s move toward even greater authoritarianism posed a systemic challenge to Britain’s values and interests.

“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over,” Sunak said Monday in his first major foreign policy speech.

His reference to the “golden era” for the U.K.-China relationship echoed comments made by former U.K. Finance Minister George Osborne in 2015, who had claimed Britain could be China’s “best partner in the West.”

Sunak said it had been “naïve” to believe that closer economic ties over the previous decade could lead to social and political reform and accused Beijing of “conspicuously competing for global influence using all of the levers of state power.”

He warned, however, that Britain could not rely on “simplistic Cold War rhetoric.”

China’s embassy in London was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment.

Sunak has faced pressure from Conservative backbenchers to toughen his stance on China since he took over as party leader and prime minister last month.

“We recognize China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests — a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” Sunak said in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London.

His comments come shortly after public demonstrations were held across China to protest the country’s stringent zero-Covid policy. A BBC journalist on Sunday was beaten and briefly detained by police while covering an anti-government protest in Shanghai.

“Instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist,” Sunak said.

“The media and our parliamentarians must be able to highlight these issues without sanction, including calling out abuses in Xinjiang and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong.”

Sunak said the pace of geopolitical change was intensifying and “short-termism or wishful thinking will not suffice” in the face of challenges posed by Russia and China.

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