David Cameron’s recent comments on council housing tenancies have sparked some controversy in the media and here on Lib Dem Voice.
First, I am delighted that at least there is a debate around housing policy. Many people are simply unable to afford to buy, leaving people in cramped overcrowded accommodation that is harmful to their and their family’s health. There are still many people sleeping on our streets and many more in homeless shelters and temporary accommodation.
I’ve seen both ends of the crisis. Ten years ago I was homeless myself and went through the shelters to temporary accommodation until I was allocated a council flat. When I got into university and got elected to Oxford City Council I decided that given the horrific shortage in my home town I would give up my secure tenancy and rent privately. That was an easy decision for me; for many others with children and dependents, or those who have not been so lucky, it is not. It goes without saying that plans to review security of tenure, or levels of rent, will cause numerous problems, not least ghettoising many communities as concentrations of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Unfortunately the debate has missed a much bigger issue, and indeed the more cynical may view Cameron’s comments as somewhat of a deflection from the fundamental problem.
There are 4.5 million people waiting for homes. You can do as many clever things as you like around temporary accomodation and the private sector, around introducing choice in allocations, or cutting times that council homes are empty. I should know; as housing portfolio holder in Oxford I did those things. But fundamentally it’s all re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. We need more affordable homes, and we need them in the areas where people want to live and work, and the areas where the lists are longest.
We need all types of housing: social rented, as well as other forms of affordable housing – shared ownership and community land trusts, for example. The Coalition Government has not yet grasped this thorny problem. Labour built fewer homes than any government since the Second World War. They forced councils to transfer their stock out of public control. They certainly didn’t have the answers, frequently caving to Nimby lobbies.
Unfortunately the Liberal Democrats seem to be going down the same route in their partnership with the Conservatives. The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) is understandable, but often they were the only way in which councils which did not want to build new homes were forced to do so. For a city like Oxford, with a huge housing need and homelessness problem, the RSS had offered some hope: 4,000 houses were on the cards to the south of the city. Our determination to protect Green Belt land at all costs, no matter what human suffering is caused, has left many people in Oxford with little hope.
The complex arrangements governing the calculation of housing benefit have been changed, leaving many people with less benefit to pay the rent in the private sector homes that councils have placed them in, in an effort to cut expensive temporary accomodation. Many will become homeless as a result.
What happens then? Well, they come back through the council’s doors, and are put in even more expensive temporary accommodation, immediately negating any potential savings from this move.
Bizarrely, there seems little consideration of housing benefit tapering, whereby as tenants start working they are still given some benefit, meaning they can still afford to live in their homes. This move would get more people off benefit and into jobs more than any penalising of those looking for work will ever do. Housing benefit is often the reason many people simply cannot afford to work.
I should know – when I was in temporary accomodation my rent was almost £300 a week, and there was no job that I could get that would pay that rent (especially with the two-year gap in my CV from being homeless and trying to put my life back together). If I had worked, I would have been made homeless. Clearly the Coalition Government does not yet understand this trap.
There are policies which have been agreed that will help the imbalance between supply and demand. Of course, making use of existing stock through refurbishing empty homes will make some difference. But there are many areas of high housing need where there are few empty homes, and many empty homes are not in the areas where people want to live and work. High speed rail can help spread economic growth around the country, helping people to get jobs and making better use of existing stock.
Buried in adopted Liberal Democrat policy papers are some excellent answers.
Replacing the right to buy with a right to invest would stem the thousands of homes that are lost from social housing stocks every year. Community land auctions would allow some greenfield development for affordable housing to happen. For areas like Oxford, with few brownfield sites and 50 year-old Green Belt boundaries that choke the lives and opportunities of less affluent residents, that policy could offer a real solution.
Where are these policies now? We didn’t even campaign on them during the election, so not everything can be blamed on the Conservatives!
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the numbers. Unless we build more affordable homes, with the right infrastructure and integrated into existing communities, then many people will be left behind. The result of the current Coalition policies will be more over-crowding, more misery, and more people sleeping on our streets. And that should not sit easy on the conscience of any Liberal Democrat.
* Patrick Murray is a Liberal Democrat city councillor in Oxford where he is deputy leader of the group.