Hannah Tomes Hannah Tomes

Is Margaret Thatcher ultimately to blame for the current social housing crisis?

Her 1980 ‘Right to Buy’ policy, though popular at the time, led to the serious erosion of social housing stock and today’s itinerant population, says Kieran Yates

Margaret Thatcher visits the Parker family in Northolt, who were among the first to buy their terrace council house from Ealing Borough Council. [Alamy]

By the time she was 25, the journalist and broadcaster Kieran Yates had lived in almost as many houses. Having rented for more than a decade, I feel her pain. I’ve lived in flats that made me physically unwell (mould has a lot to answer for) and survived housemates whose approach to kitchen hygiene made every day a salmonella minefield. I would visit a former boyfriend whose bedroom was, essentially, a glorified crawl space in a cold artists’ warehouse. He was 6ft 6in and couldn’t even kneel up in it, but, aged 24, I thought it was cool. Now I see it for what it was: an indictment of London’s rental market, embodied in grey concrete and exposed piping.  

All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In is an exposé of the sorry state of housing in Britain and a journey through the author’s life, year by year, brick by brick. Yates started off in Southall, west London, after her grandparents – nanaji and naniji – moved to the UK from Bahowal, a village in India, to ‘build to something’. It was there that she learned what it meant to live in a community under threat: their road was at the centre of the Southall riots in the 1970s. Her mother, as a 12-year-old, was tasked with ‘stacking frozen onions for future meals’ while racial violence raged outside.

Not long after Yates was born, her parents, set up in an arranged marriage, split, and her mother was ostracised from her community. It was then that the moves started. With wonderful clarity, Yates charts the ups and downs of nomadic life: sharing accommodation with ‘a Somali refugee and Jehovah’s Witness with an addiction to burnt toast and halal haribos’; renting a flat above a car showroom (‘downstairs, people were selling cars for thousands of pounds while we hopped over wires to avoid electrocution’); and finally finding space to dream in Peckham Rye.

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