The lack of affordable housing in the UK is at crisis point. On average, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes and over 1.6 million people are on housing waiting lists in the UK, including 124 000 homeless children. This means that the Government’s White Paper on housing has been highly anticipated. But it needs to be extraordinarily ambitious to tackle the severity of the housing crisis.
It is too late then to simply paper over the cracks. We need a radical, far-reaching and comprehensive approach to housing. That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling for a complete overhaul of the housing system, with an emphasis on five key solutions.
Creating more affordable homes for rent
20% of the population lives in private rented accommodation. And yet, private sector rents have become unacceptably high in many parts of Britain, most notably in London. Many renters are now paying more than half their disposable income in rent.
That is why we have been calling for government investment in a new generation of quality homes for rent that are affordable for those on low and middle incomes. This means increasing the access to finance for councils and housing associations and reversing the sell-off of higher value homes.
Because the need for affordable homes for rent is now so severe, this should be accompanied by an increase in the use of offsite construction, or prefabs, to speed up the house-building process.
However, Brexit has complicated this picture. That’s because building costs will increase significantly due to the rising cost of imported materials and because it will be harder to recruit vital workers from Europe who are needed in some parts of the UK and to create the certainty necessary for investment.
Developing a Housing Investment Bank
The housing sector is crying out for capital. A Housing Investment Bank would tackle this problem on three fronts. First, it would create the much-needed investor scale and confidence to draw in private capital. Second, it would provide long-term public capital for major new developments. Third, it would provide better access to finance for small and medium sized construction businesses.
Much like the British Business Bank or the Green Investment Bank, a Housing Investment Bank will create a forward-looking, long-term approach to solving the housing crisis and investing in the future.
Bringing empty homes back to use
The number of empty homes in the UK is a scandal. This is especially true at a time when demand is so outstripping supply, and house prices and rents are unaffordable for so many.
That is why the Liberal Democrats would enable local authorities to attach planning conditions to new developments to ensure homes are occupied. This would tackle the growth of ‘buy to leave empty’ investments from overseas in property hotspots like London.
After a new home has been empty for a long period, we would allow councils to compulsory purchase them from the owners so they can be used as homes again.
Introducing new garden cities
I welcome the government go-ahead for new garden villages, the locally led new communities that give access to green space and sustainable development as well as planned infrastructure.
However, the Government’s commitment does not go far enough. We have long been calling for at least ten new Garden Cities to provide tens of thousands of high-quality new homes with gardens, transport links and schools.
Backing Supported Housing
Supported housing for older people and vulnerable adults is a crucial resource for many people, allowing its residents to live independently where they previously could not. People living in supported housing face a number of challenges, including fleeing domestic violence, addiction, ex-offending and homelessness. That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to support those relying on supported housing, including by developing the use of Housing First and other innovative solutions. The supported housing grant must be protected.
Access to housing – whether this is supported housing, private rented housing or home ownership – is fundamental to our liberties, opportunities and hopes for the future. The White Paper comes at a crucial time and must deliver a radical plan. Anything less will only extend this crisis for the next generation.