JOHN BATTLE MP
IN A world in which, in 1991 alone, 43 million people were refugees, the "right to a home" set out in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights becomes a mocking taunt.
Increasingly we live in in a world of refugees uprooted people. Nor can the "right to a home" properly be addressed by dealing with asylum questions or with the economic structure of the "housing market".
If you stick to the dictum "It's not a house it's a home" then refugees and the homeless share a common situation. Since refugees are people forced to leave their homes, then 145,000 households in England accepted as "officially homeless" in 1990, the countless thousands of "hidden homeless" living in bad conditions, in overcrowded circumstances; the 50,000 in temporary accommodation; those such as the elderly, disabled, or young families living up flights of stairs; and all those in local authority waiting for transfer lists, are all "internal refugees" in our society. What they share is waiting for a home.
At my MP's "surgeries" last month there were a handful of mortgage repossession cases people who had lost their home, been taken to the courts and needed the council to rehouse them. The problem facing them was the lack of council housing.
As top priority "homeless", they would have to be offered hostel accommodation (and the family split up) until a council house came up. Two letters in the local papers argued that noone could lose their home without it being their own fault "mismanaging their money" and not putting "paying the rent or mortgage first". Each week I'm contacted by hundreds of people wanting a home: this weekend I was approached by a Czechoslovakian couple with their two-year-old son. The husband had won an international scholarship to do scientific research in Leeds. The term has now finished but tragically the couple have now no safe home to return to.
It's not just the myth of "Britain a tiny overcrowded island" that can't fit any more people in it that's the problem. There seem to be two major background issues. Firstly that "property" has priority over people, and secondly there is the tendency always to blame victims for their fate.
In the last century, the notion that a market-based system of the production and consumption of housing would produce homes for all was exposed as folly. Homelessness and deteriorating conditions (leading to declining public health that became a threat to all) was the result of scarcity, high rents, and the use of
housing as property speculation.
In 1980 the "Housing of the Working Classes Act" granted local councils powers to provide housing using money from the rates.
In 1919, under the Addison Act, local authorities were obliged to survey the housing needs of their district and draw up plans for housing development. This intervention in the housing production market was accepted consensus for most of the 20th century.
But since the late 1970s the local authority role in the provision of housing has been increasingly restricted. The result to date is that some local authorities have no housing at all (they've sold it off) and so cannot fulfil their statutory obligation to house the homeless.
Owner-occupation is now at 71 per cent (it was 43 per cent in 1979). There is virtually no alternative to "owning". Yet, with a declining property market, 25 per cent of all first time buyers now have mortgages larger than the value of their house.
The campaign for a national policy commitment to a home as a basic human right in our society has yet to get off the ground. Not only do we need a "theology of home" we also need to challenge a politics, a media and a theology which blames the victim.
As the theologian Adolphe Gescbe put it: "In my view the basic importance of the theology of liberation is that it takes into account the widespread objective evil that entails no fault in the sufferer."