Mrs Thatcher’s desire to turn UK into a property-owning democracy has made home ownership an impossible dream says Joyce McMillan
To the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy, last weekend, to watch Tony Roper’s iconic play The Steamie set off on its 30th anniversary tour. Set in a Glasgow communal wash-house on New Year’s Eve 1950, it captures a moment in Scottish history when the old inner-city slums of the 19th century were about to be pulled down, and the people who lived in them decanted to new communities on the edge of the city.
Some of the older women in the play are fearful of the loneliness and social isolation that may be to come. But Doreen, the youngest, can’t wait to move on into the modern world, as she sees it; and one of the most famous of the great songs written by David Anderson of Wildcat for the show is her lovely ballad Dreams Come True, about how she dreams of moving to Drumchapel, where there will be clean air, views of green fields, and “an inside toilet, too.”
When The Steamie first appeared during Glasgow’s Mayfest in 1987, the response to that song was already an ironic one; Drumchapel, like other big peripheral Glasgow estates, had become a byword in some quarters for social deprivation, alienation, vandalism. Yet many in the audience could also remember a time when they felt exactly the same as Doreen, about the huge, idealistic public housing effort that lifted people out of the smoky city centres and into new estates. And there are many people who grew up in council houses in postwar Scotland - myself included - who remember only spacious, comfortable homes that seemed a sunny world away from the dark, cramped tenement flats of the previous generation; and a deep sense of security that provided the basis for three unprecedented decades of economic growth, thoroughly distributed throughout society.
So today, when Doreen sings her song, there’s a double irony in play; not only the recognition that Drumchapel was never a paradise, but also a question about what happened to the society that, in the 1950s, so boldly built those 300,000 family homes a year, and let them to ordinary working families at completely affordable rents.
Yesterday, in London, the retired judge Martin Moore-Bick opened the public inquiry into the catastrophic fire which, three months ago this week, destroyed the Grenfell Tower housing block in north-west London, killing an unknown number of people, officially described as “more than 80”. Yet already, since the disaster, the blackened ruin of the tower has become a byword for all that has gone wrong with Britain’s housing provision, since Margaret Thatcher’s government began back in 1980 to sell off our public housing stock to its tenants at knock-down prices.
The story of the overcrowded, chaotically sub-let tower, and of the horror that ripped through its inadequately fire-proofed structure, offered an almost Dickensian picture of a London hopelessly divided between the wealthy people who have made half-occupied palaces of the traditional Kensington town-houses near Grenfell, and those who still huddle in what social housing remains.
And if London - with its great, silent towers of luxury flats, and its ordinary houses in unremarkable streets selling for a million pounds or more - represents an extreme example of the recent British housing market, traces of the same syndrome can now be seen in every city, including Edinburgh, as luxury developments take over once-proud civic buildings, and drive out ordinary working households. The constant inflation of house prices, presided over with glee by developers and governments alike, has created what is now known as “generation rent”; young people for whom the combination of stagnant wages, soaring housing costs, and - particularly in England - huge student loan repayments, has made home ownership an impossible dream. There is a profound irony in the fact that Margaret Thatcher’s effort to turn Britain into a property-owning democracy has come to this, in just 35 years. Yet it has; and it is now evident to all but the most blinkered that a radical change of direction is needed.
The question remains, though, whether Britain is now really psychologically capable of entering a new age of publicly-owned social housing, retained in public ownership. Although the right to buy public housing ended in Scotland last year, it persists elsewhere in the UK; and Britain’s local authorities have been stripped of so many powers, over years of centralisation in finance and policy-making, that it’s difficult to imagine them recreating their former role as mass housing providers.
The Scottish Government says it will work with local authorities and other partners to deliver 50,000 new affordable homes by 2021, of which 35,000 will be socially owned; but it remains to be seen whether these developments will merge unremarkably into the Scottish housing landscape, or will cause the ripping-up of precious green-belt breathing space, and become notorious in their turn.
What is clear, though, is that a society, or an economic system, which fails to provide its ordinary citizens with secure homes in which a family can be raised, is failing in one of its most fundamental tasks. In the clarity of the post-war moment - with memories of the Great Depression not far behind - every political party in Britain could see as much, and was willing to join the great race to build more council houses. Now, forty years of free-market rhetoric, and the relentless promotion of the idea of home ownership as a good in itself, has clouded that clear perception of need.
Yet amid all the ideological shadow-boxing and blame-shifting of Brexit Britain, Grenfell Tower - or what remains of it - stands as a rebuke, and a reality-check, that is almost impossible to ignore. “Some day we’ll say what became of the slums,” sing the women in the old closing song of The Steamie, the Hogmanay anthem All The Best When It Comes. Likewise, some day we will know, and say, what happened at Grenfell; and then, if we respect the memory of those who died there, we must strip the ideological blinkers from our eyes, and begin to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the system that permitted such horror is changed, and changed for good.