BLOG: Poor people shouldn’t have to put up with poor property

For years my colleagues have worked to build greater understanding of the role of property in delivering community benefit and social mission. Yet so often we come up against a mindset, whether in the private sector, local authorities and even in parts of the charity sector itself, which believes deep down, that poor people must just put up with poor property as well as the local voluntary groups trying to help them.

I have even come across funders who have no interest in the property conditions experienced by the staff and beneficiaries delivering the projects they fund. However, this year a sudden game changer has challenged this cosy norm: the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Here was traumatising evidence of what happens when professional people act on assumptions about people living in social housing.

Now policy makers, property industry pros and local government officers can only look on in horror as the local people find their voice and at a future hell of legal action and blighted careers. It was lost on no-one that it was civil society that stepped in to serve local need after the rescue services. It was faith groups and professional aid charities that did the practical caring – and let us not forget, played a role just as important as the police in stopping social unrest in the days which followed.

So, when did this idea take root that says poor people don’t deserve proper conditions to live and work in? I have come to the conclusion it is all about a deeply engrained feudalism, probably dating from the arrival of all those Normandy Vikings in 1066 along with their caste system based on land tenure.

The very term landlord tells you the position of the tenant. We don’t talk about property suppliers/owners and clients, do we? Even the term mortgage with its Norman French origin means a bond until death. Since the Battle of Hastings therefore, property has been a means of social control and keeping people in their place. Recent headlines about ground rents on private property is a classic tale of feudalism. Freeholders – i.e. property companies buying up thousands if not millions of freeholds, can gather income as lords of the land from those burdened by their low interest ‘bonds until death’ who were under the illusion they were owner-occupiers.

As for the voluntary sector – while there are of course big charity landlords, most voluntary organisations are small and must rent affordable premises for staff and beneficiaries. And my colleagues see all the time just what that means. Over the past six months the Ethical Property Foundation has delivered workshops and advice clinics across the country to local voluntary groups as part of our National Programme for Property Education.

To date, we have supported 138 organisations serving over 270,000 beneficiaries, many in areas of multiple deprivations. We have visited local communities with male mortality rates on a par with Rwanda, and learned of the huge differences in male mortality rates between the poorest and richest areas of our cities: in Newcastle for example this is 14 years.

We have also found voluntary groups serving local communities in the South West, in premises my colleagues could not believe had not slum cleared back in the 1980s. We work from scratch, building an awareness of the need for good premises management, understanding risk, lease negotiation and what words to use to clothe the concepts and realities of property and land tenure.

There is no golden rule that says poor people must put up with poor property. Equally there is no rule that says voluntary organisations working in poor communities must work in rotten property either. So, let us work together to bust these feudal myths and stop history repeating itself. For we all know from our history books just what happens when distorted land values allow the have-mores to feel they are deserving, and everyone else is not. And this is a golden rule: when bricks fly and windows smash, all property bets are off.

Antonia Swinson is chief executive of the Ethical Property Foundation

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