May’s Housing Speech: Another Missed Opportunity to Tackle the Housing Crisis
The prime minister’s speech on housing today was disappointing for anyone desperate for affordable, safe and secure housing in the UK. May promised to crack down on property developers who don’t develop the land they buy – originally a 2015 Labour policy – but senior Conservatives in local government have dismissed her proposals as inadequate, stating that until the government allows local authorities to build homes we won't have the tools to tackle our chronic housing crisis.
Home ownership is increasingly a generational issue. While today’s grandparents scrimped and saved to get their first home, that’s no longer enough to buy a property in many UK property hotspots. House prices have risen so much more quickly than incomes that the chances of a young adult on a middle income (£22,200 - £30,600) buying a home have halved in the last 20 years.
It was particularly frustrating to hear no new solutions after May successfully identified one of the most personal impacts of being stuck in insecure rented accommodation – it’s harder to play an active role in your community. Why would you get involved in local politics and campaigns, respond to consultations about cycle lanes or make an effort to get to know your neighbours if you expect to move on after your one year lease? If you have a family, how often are your children moving school or nursery?
While some in private rented accommodation are either asked to leave at short notice or dread the annual rent rise and prepare to move their boxes to another tiny room, others are unable to even sign a lease. The restrictions on tenants in the private rented sector are severe; anyone who’s looked at private rental ads in the last few years will have noticed ‘No DSS’ in a number of them (particularly in larger cities) – this means no tenants receiving housing benefit. Last month one mother took a letting agency to court accusing them of indirectly discriminating against women, who are more likely to be single parents and to receive housing benefit. The case was settled out of court, but established that not letting to those on housing benefit can be considered discriminatory.
In 2017, over 100,000 people were on housing waiting lists, 35,000 of them having waited for a decade. Why don’t we build enough homes for families to live in? There are lots of reasons, but a key one is limits on local authorities borrowing money to build, assuming there is the political will within individual councils, but both Labour and Conservative council leaders have called to lift the cap on local authority borrowing.
But the answer isn’t just to build more homes; the types of homes we build matter too. We need vastly more social housing, not only for families on waiting lists, but to stop housing benefit from propping up high rents. Building more homes for living rent would also enable those on lower incomes to actually save towards home ownership. We also need some form of market intervention in the private rented sector; opinions differ on what the best way forward is, and what package of reform we’d need to both start to limit rents and prevent a rush of landlords selling properties that just reduce the amount of rented stock available, and end up being bought by the wealthy.
It used to be that building social housing was thought to ‘create Labour voters’, but there is a strong political incentive for the Conservative government to start both building social housing and regulating our ridiculous housing market: they’re on track to lose a generation of voters. The Conservatives have got one thing right, our housing market is broken, but the government is tinkering rather than providing the leadership and action to make real progress on the housing crisis.