Sumantra Maitra

Possibility of An Island

May 9, 2018

During my last couple of years as a journalist, before I moved to the UK on a PhD scholarship, I was working on a story about racism in New Zealand. It is a curious place; two different countries within the same landmass. The South Island cities, like Dunedin and Christchurch, are considerably more homogeneous, lily-white and culturally quite insulated, while the northern cities, like Wellington and Auckland, are more cosmopolitan. Also, in the northern cities, one quickly grows a foreigner community, comprising of mostly European gap-year backpackers, Asian students, and working expats. To someone born in Kolkata and who had lived in Mumbai, two of the largest cities on the planet, the surface comforts of Auckland proved more compelling even than New Zealand’s famed natural beauty.

During my time there, I found myself trawling through research papers, talking to random people, and comparing diametrically opposed press releases from the New Zealand Greens and New Zealand First, two political parties that are antithetical in their stances about immigration and housing. The contrast was surreal. While the former made you feel that you were living in a Christian conservative version of Saudi Arabia, and that New Zealand’s treatment of minorities and migrants reflected a cultural racism unparalleled in the civilized world; the latter gave the impression that New Zealand had already turned into Saudi Arabia. Neither is true, obviously: Kiwis are extremely friendly, and I did not face a single act of racism in my entire half-decade stay. (Nor was I, for that matter, ever worried about being stabbed or suicide-bombed while on my last train home from work, a feeling I have since become familiar with).

While chasing the story, I had a meeting with an old British pensioner who had recently moved to New Zealand. She invited me to her place and we talked about why she had come here at all. Her primary reason, as she put it, was that she could ‘no longer recognize’ the Britain she had left. I should note that she was also a lifelong Labour voter from traditionally-leftist Croydon, who had been in feminist and socialist rallies during the 70s. But her concern was that Britain was now occupied by people who were fundamentally anti-British, a sentiment that she conveyed more colourfully, in words less fit for print. Smiling whilst pouring me prodigious quantities of fresh Darjeeling tea and offering me homemade muffins, she complained about the migrants not assimilating and living in ghettos, about the homeless people on the streets, couched in their own songs, wrapped up in their cultural orthodoxy and territorial entrenchments. I left, understandably confused, and I remained so –until reaching Britain.

In Britain, the lament goes, there is no space for people to live and no bond between them on the streets. British towns are ghettoized. Though nearly every town in the UK still has its quintessentially British recesses, with tea joints, cakes and overhanging lavender in pots adjoining pubs, most towns are simply not like this. In fact, they’re barely even recognizable. There are streets where one cannot hear anyone speaking English. Roads are filled with broken shards of beer bottles, the signature of Tony Blair’s liberalization of street drinking in the late 90s. Entire areas are inhabited by Kurd kebab shops or Roma gypsies trying to (re)sell stolen watches. The only visible British signs are the haunting grey facades of old Anglican churches, with their Belgian glass panes hidden behind metallic mesh to spare them from vandalism, and homeless addicts crouched on graveyards next to the cathedral grounds, dauntless, as police forces in the UK are impotent. Lanes and bylanes are replete with shops selling Arab abayas and books spreading the virtues of Koranic matrimony. In the bigger cities, you will see weasel-faced louts smoking dope unworriedly in bus stops. Be careless, and you might feel the soft poke of a sharpened knife in your spine, asking to part with your cash. Homelessness and beggary are rife in every corner, but —unlike what is the case in India— baffling to observe, since most of these tramps are able-bodied men who could, presumably, find work. Yet they do not.

Britain is undoubtedly in the midst of a housing and healthcare crisis. Though my healthcare was already paid for by my insurance, it took me a month staying at a backpacker hostel to find accommodation in a damp, depressing, brick-red council house in post-industrial Nottingham that I was quickly prompted to replace for a slightly more decent —if much more expensive— flat, before too long. Murderers, rapists and refugees in Scandinavia —even the rare ones who are in jail for their crimes— live in conditions better than the ones I found myself in. The country that had once perfected public manners and the stoic demeanour has given way to utter laxity and lawlessness. And the one thing everybody should agree on, when it comes to Brexit, is that —like it or not— it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

The ALBA-sympathizing British Labour party naturally claims to have a tried (untrue) solution to the housing problem: to cease properties and redistribute. The main plan is to ‘immediately purchase 8,000 properties across the country to give immediate housing to those people who are currently homeless” and, should that fail, “we would give local authorities the power to take over deliberately kept vacant properties’.[1] Who would pay for the excess money to buy 8000 properties? Taxpayers? Currently, around thirteen billion pounds a year is spent on foreign aid by the UK, while there are people sleeping on the roads in extreme winter and hospitals and police remain obscenely understaffed due to lack of funds. Who would be the primary beneficiaries of this measure? Military-aged men from Southern Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East, who crossed over to the UK via the channel tunnel.[2] Today one can walk around Kensington, one of the most upmarket parts of London, and see the burned-out Grenfell Tower standing like a charred, World War II bombed-out building. Who, again, is claiming benefits and compensations over the deaths, and who are clogging up on homelessness?

Not to lag behind, liberals posing as conservatives would one-up the Labour party in their doltish policies. In England, for example, rough sleeping has increased by a staggering 15% since 2017.[3] Conservatives are well aware the reason for this isn’t just the housing crisis, with then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid going so far as to admit that the causes were a complex mix of ‘mental health issues, drug or alcohol addiction, and family breakdown’. So what is his proposed solution? To learn from Finland, the only country in the northern hemisphere which claims to have eradicated homelessness. A new bureaucratic government team, including people from different departments, like the NHS –and even private charities, for some reason— will receive a budget of 30 million pounds, to be manned by people who ‘have worked in this area for years, in some cases decades, and other experts, including international [ones]’, Javid said. Their primary job: to copy Finland’s system for Britain.

The Finnish way is a model called ‘Housing First’, which focuses on ending homelessness instead of managing the problem. Long story short, every person is provided an accommodation, whether it be a community house or a shared place to live. Since 2008, Finland has been working on this model, which is essentially the one used by the Soviet system under Nikita Khrushchev, in which government-funded accommodation and healthcare were provided to people.

But this is an inadequate, simplistic way in which to address the British housing dilemma. As a country, the United Kingdom is incredibly averse to development. Bilbo Baggins or Lord Emsworth aren’t just characters wrought from thin air, but reflective of the national NYMBY-istic psyche; something evident as the administration faces obstacles not only from conservatives who want to keep their green shires and villages intact, but also from the Green and Labour party coalitions, the environmentalists and those who wish for no development to take place in the areas they’re in power of. As Peter Hitchens put it, speaking for all:

The homeowners of Britain are being lied to, and unfairly smeared to try to get us to accept a hideous and irreparable destruction of green space in suburbs and the countryside. They are also being blamed personally for a problem they did not cause, in a nasty war on the middle-aged. They should resist this. It is garbage to claim that liberating grabby developers to build thousands of nasty box homes will bring down the price of housing for the young in any important way.  

The planning rules that need replacing are archaic, and urgent land acquisition and housing plans can ease the problem. Simply put, we’re looking at a series of Krushchyovka plans, much like the ones that were in place in the Soviet Union in the 60s and which still house around 700,000 lower to middle-income people in the suburbs of Moscow. Both the leftists and free-marketers agree that the way to solve the housing crisis and relieve the pent-up anger it is causing is to build more houses: not just council houses, but massive apartment buildings, which can house a lot of families in short places.

Unfortunately, there’s an obvious flaw. The United Kingdom isn’t Finland or the Soviet Union. Finland’s total landmass is 338,424 sq KM, with a population of 5.5 million, compared to the United Kingdom, with a total area of 242,495 sq KM, and a population of 60 million –added to Finland’s five. Nor did Finland or the former Soviet Union face the inexorable, westward rush of millions of people from Albania and Bulgaria and Romania, coming in droves and bringing their friends with them. The UK population, which was 59 million in 2000, rose to 66 million in January 2017, and is set to cross 70 million by 2029. In London, where homelessness is rife, the number of births attributed to foreign-born parents is as close as 60%.[4] This is glaringly unsustainable, and yet no-one is addressing the proverbial elephant in the room.

As for free accommodation and redistribution, here’s a story. Seven years ago, when I was still a rookie journalist, I read that homeless beggars in New Delhi were being provided with council social housing and made to learn trades and train in pottery and other small jobs for an honest living. It was a scheme intended to clean up the city streets before the Commonwealth Games, as well as to provide support to the persistent beggar problem in India. Two years from that, those council houses are still empty, and the beggars and vagrants returned to the sidewalks and drugs, after refusing to do such hard work. Walking around the streets of London or Nottingham or Manchester today, it would be remiss of me to be more optimistic. I left Asia in 2011 and, in 2018, I’m watching Europe become it.

As of Brexit, and the old British lady, it is understandable why the Leave campaign’s message caught on with many Britons (and with broader Eurosceptics across the EU, as well). There were no Churchillian circumlocutions on the Leave side, just drab three-word messages of ‘taking back control’ being hammered down, and inside, and again. Sometimes, when a way of life is threatened and what once was neighbourly turns all-too-quickly unfamiliar, people would rather not listen to the words of economic prudence. That being said, Brexit was neither about prudence nor common sense, so much as a clannish reaction against perceived elite-driven social restructuring. The current and ongoing housing crisis in the UK is the symptom of a greater malaise, a reflection of the broader rot in British society that has instinctively turned people reactionary. And no amount of Soviet-style free-housing plans will douse that spark.


[1] “Corbyn: Labour would buy 8,000 properties for homeless people”, The Guardian, 28 Jan 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/28/corbyn-labour-would-buy-8000-properties-for-the-homeless
[2] It is common for London Metropolitan police to raid homes to find 30 to 40 migrants stacked in tiny flats. See, 1. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/25/overcrowding-housing-raid-26-living-three-bedroom-east-london; 2. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/thirtyone-migrants-crammed-into-four-bedroom-london-house-a3305391.html; 3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/london-landlord-inidan-migrants-crammed-slum-squat-any-key-names-locations-a8180096.html
[3]  Speaking to Sky, Javid said up to 30% of rough sleepers in London are ex-offenders, adding, “When we release prisoners, many of them will not go on straight into accommodation, and it is actually possible, if you work harder, to identify those that are at risk of rough sleeping and to take action up front so they don’t end up on the streets.” Put simply, a nominally conservative government that focuses on diminished jail terms and rehabilitation now frees offenders early with reduced incarceration rates. The offenders then go back to the market, turn homeless, and re-offend. “England to copy Finland in bid to end rough sleeping”, Sky News, 30 March 2018. https://news.sky.com/story/england-to-copy-finland-in-bid-to-end-homelessness-11309268
[4] “Why mass immigration explains the housing crisis”, The Spectator, 17 March 2018


 

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is on foreign policy, great power relations and neorealism, with a focus on Russia and NATO. He is a regular columnist for Quillette, The Interpreter, The National Interest and War on the Rocks. He is a member of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST) of the University of Nottingham, and also a regular analyst for the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.

He can be found on Twitter @MrMaitra