Radical change is needed to tackle the housing crisis
In the midst of one of Britain’s most protracted economic and social crises, it is not hyperbole to argue that housing is one of the greatest country’s ills. There are up to five million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. The number of new homes being built is at its lowest level since records began in 1923. One in four children in London now live in cramped conditions, a rise of nearly a fifth in the last four years. Homelessness has leapt by a quarter in a year, even as Government spending on the problem has fallen from £213.7 million to £199.8 million.
Private rents are soaring. According to Shelter, families need a combined salary of £52,000 – way above the median income – in order to live in the capital. The private rented sector lacks meaningful regulation: tenants are at the mercy of the mini-despots that private landlords have become. Some may be benevolent, others ruthlessly hiking rents – it’s a complete lottery. The refusal to build council housing has been justified by the ideological crusade to promote home ownership – and yet owner-occupiers have been in decline since 2005.
It represents such a dramatic crisis because housing is such an important part of our general wellbeing. Poor housing can have an impact on our health: this was once such commonsense that housing used to be part of the Ministry of Health. Overcrowding and homelessness represent a block on children succeeding at school, as well as damaging their physical and psychological health.
The crisis prevents people from gaining security and stability. For example, the number of families with children forced to privately rent has almost doubled in five years to more than a million. It compels them to repeatedly move, disrupting the education of their children and preventing them from setting down roots.
The housing crisis has an impact on community cohesion, too. When Nye Bevan launched the council housing building revolution after World War II, he justified it on the basis that ‘it is essential for the full life of the citizen to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.’ In Bevan’s ideal society, ‘the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all live in one street.’
But the legacy of right-to-buy in the 1980s and the failure to replace stock that has been sold off have devastated Bevan’s vision. The remaining council housing is prioritised for those most in need, and treated by successive governments as a virtual social dumping ground. Meanwhile cuts to housing benefit are driving poor families from their homes. London in particular risks becoming more like Paris, where the affluent live in the centre and the poor live in the banlieues (suburbs).
Housing has led to even more dangerous divisions in our communities. In Barking and Dagenham, for example, the racist British National Party exploited frustrations at the lack of housing by arguing that immigrants were being given priority for what little stock there was.
The housing crisis has also put pressure on the taxpayer. Around £21.6 billion is being wasted on housing benefit – a figure that has nearly doubled in the last decade – but it is not lining the pockets of tenants as the media and right-wing politicians would have us believe. Instead it is subsidising private landlords charging extortionate rents in a form of ‘socialism for the rich’.
To begin with, we should start regulating the private rented sector properly. We could start by learning from Germany. Local government is responsible for setting the maximum rent for apartments. Landlords can only increase rents in regulated steps, not with arbitrary dramatic hikes.
But above all we desperately need a radical house-building programme. Shelter estimate that we would need to build at least 240,000 homes a year – about twice as many more than are currently being built – to meet people’s needs. It would be popular: according to a YouGov poll commissioned by Class, 64% would support the building of 500,000 new homes.
There is a solid economic case. Building housing was one of the key pillars of the post-war Labour Government’s strategy for jobs and growth, when it was dealing with a far worse deficit. In the 1950s, the Tories and Labour competed over who could build more housing. Today, Shelter estimate that every £100 spent on house building would generate £350 in return. It would have a ‘multiplier’ effect, stimulating other industries and creating jobs, particularly in construction. And building council housing would mean less money being wasted on the private landlord subsidy that is housing benefit.
An emergency housing programme would be key to building a new society. New homes would need to be properly insulated, saving on energy bills and helping the environment. They must surely seek to promote mixed communities once more, ending the growing segregation of British society. They would provide enough space to enable individuals to flourish in comfortable circumstances.
None of this is on the agenda under the current Government. But if we are to build a new political consensus in place of the decaying neo-liberal settlement, housing must be at its absolute heart.