There’s nothing that makes me feel better about a lifetime of insecure housing than seeing Boris Johnson forced to share a mansion with Liam Fox and David Davis. When news broke that the foreign secretary’s 3,500-acre, 115-room official residence of Chevening has been made jointly at the disposal of Johnson and the two Brexit ministers, I looked back at the time I lived in a flat without windows or a bathroom and thought, Hey, I didn’t draw the short straw after all.
Explaining the decision to wrench Chevening out of the Foreign Secretary’s sole ownership, the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said that it “reflects the fact that all of these secretaries of state will, as part of their work, [need] an opportunity to host foreign visitors and leaders”, but personally I’ve always found it unforgivably embarrassing when I bump into one of my housemates on my way to the drawing room as I host foreign dignitaries. And even though BoJo – whose tax return this year showed he’d made £2m since 2012, more than twice as much as David Cameron – will be able to live at the luxurious 1 Carlton Gardens when he’s in London, at a cost of £2,000 per day to the taxpayer, it’s not really the same as getting 115 rooms to yourself when you want to put your feet up in the countryside, is it?
My flat does have something in common with Chevening, and it’s not the maze or the “double hexagonal walled kitchen garden”. It’s the fact that I could be turfed out at any time, on the whim of someone much more powerful than me. Theresa May decides Boris isn’t up to the job, and it’s goodbye grace-and-favour accommodation on the lakeside in Kent, goodbye luxury Westminster apartment. My landlord decides he wants to sell up, or give our apartment to someone who’s willing to pay more, or finds out about the stray cat I’m secretly keeping (note to landlord: there is no cat), and it’s back into my friend’s airing cupboard for me.
That’s why jokey radio banter about Liam Fox top-and-tailing with David Davis and hilarious imaginings of how Boris might have to jostle for wardrobe space with his fellow policy-makers end up seeming vulgar, coming as they do hot on the heels of news from Shelter that 350,000 renters were put at risk of eviction in the last year. Enfield topped Shelter’s list of “home threat hotspots”, with one in 23 rented homes under threat of eviction; meanwhile, 500,000 people this year visited the charity’s eviction advice pages, while volunteers responded to more than 4 million requests for help.
As someone who is not so much on the housing ladder as standing directly underneath the scaffolding while thousands of well-heeled pensioners periodically dump buckets of their own sewage onto my head, there’s only so hard I can laugh when I hear gags about the three Brexiteers squeezing a bunk-bed into a mansion. I’m not saying I have it harder than anyone else in my generation – in fact, that’s exactly the point. When an entire generation of your country has been priced out of owning their own home and faces lower living standards than their parents’ generation for the first time since the early 20th century, it’s time to start wondering whether the 3,500-acre estate could be worth repurposing.
You might say that any government is due its high-standard buildings, but we live in a country replete with mansions, manors, palaces and taxpayer-funded “official residences”. As taxpayers, we fork out for the monarchy to live in luxury and we fork out for the Government to do so as well, even though a hefty proportion of those governmental figures are millionaires. And unbelievably, there were 10 empty homes for every homeless family in England in 2015 – that’s 635,127 houses left pointlessly unoccupied. Whole blocks of flats in London stand empty, where rich “buy to leave” investors from overseas pay sometimes £1m for a flat and never live in it or rent it out. The amount of properties that exist this way, completely deliberately, in a country mired in a housing crisis is shameful.
The world's least affordable cities for housing
Some of these mansions and mansion flats really could be used to tackle that ever-increasing crisis, one that isn’t being solved by building more houses because the house-builders are shunning affordable housing to target the wealthy. Perhaps it’s because they heard all the jokes about Boris slumming it at Chevening and assumed the market was flooded with people who thought 115 rooms between three was one austerity measure too far. And who could blame them, after all, when the voices of the wealthy are amplified in government and the voices of the young become ever more muffled with every Conservative policy and disparaging remark about those pesky Pokemon-playing millennials? To condemn a generation the way the Tories have done is one thing – but to pretend it’s all a jolly good laugh is quite another.Reuse content