Want to make a real difference to the country’s problems? Commit serious resources to social housing.
Being in government doesn’t half expose the difficulties of politics. The easiest things for politicians to change are laws, taxes and benefit entitlements. But these seem so ineffective against the major problems that our society faces.
Reforming taxes does little to rebalance inequality – an inadequate treatment of the symptoms that does nothing to change the causes. Raising benefits does little to help the wellbeing of those trapped in poverty. Cutting them does not so much restore incentives as kick people while they are down. Talking about it just makes people sour and resentful. And if passing laws in Parliament really helped people the last Labour government would have taken us to the Promised Land already.
So what to do? A bit of direct action to fix some of the country’s problems would not go amiss. And one issue lies close to the heart of the country’s dysfunction. Housing. Of course many of us over 50 are doing quite nicely thank you. We occupy some of the nicest housing in the world. But property prices are now so high that these nice properties are out of reach to the next generation except through inheritance. Never mind the many older people who were no quite so lucky in life’s lottery.
And meanwhile our social problems are concentrated in nasty council estates, or in substandard private accommodation supplied by unscrupulous landlords and subsidised handsomely through housing benefit. For thirty years the supply of social housing has been shrinking; and much of the stock before then was pretty awful anyway.
No free market solution is on offer. Developers aren’t really interested in building decent homes for those that need them most. And being free and easy with mortgage lending mainly benefits those already with property, and ends in tears.
So why not make a real difference to people’s lives and build more social housing? Lots more. Proper, decent family homes especially.
Of course what we don’t want is the sort of mega, high-profile prestige projects so beloved of Labour that treat tenants as grateful pawns. We want lots of human scale projects involving tenants in the design process. They should not be the get rich quick schemes based on house sales favoured by most commercial house-builders. We need rental funded projects from housing associations, community cooperatives and direct council ownership, with right to buy only as a long term option.
So how to take this forward? I’m no expert, and the experts can make the whole thing very complex in seconds. But we should hold sight of three critical blockages: finance; land; and political will.
Finance. This has dried up in both private and public sector. But the government is finding it quite easy to borrow money right now. We can expand the national debt so long as it is clear that any investment will pay back financially in the long run (unlike Ed Balls’s VAT cut). And you can do that with housing. Rents provide a revenue stream; and you can allow sales in due course. The returns cannot be as high as private developers would demand. But they don’t have to be. How about a government Housing Bank designed to lend to social housing projects from all comers?
Land. Britain isn’t short of land to build on. According to the Building & Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) only 1% of land in England is covered by domestic dwellings. But there is a shortage of land with planning permission. There brownfield sites – but not enough, especially when you realise that some valuable city green spaces are classified as brownfield! We can use and redevelop some existing housing developments, raising its quality. Government agencies often aren’t charged for the land they own, and are often using it wastefully. But we have to realise that some green fields will have to be developed. And some of the poorer quality green belt land is a logical place to look.
Which brings us to the biggest blockage of all: political will. Politicians talk a good game, of course. The Coalition government has launched a raft of policies designed help improve housing supply, including social housing. But it’s piecemeal, with no overarching narrative, and a distinct lack of urgency. Mention “greenbelt” and you won’t see most politicians for dust. This is difficult political territory. The property haves always have their reasons for opposing developments needed by the have-nots. Extra finance means more flexibility from the Treasury – and almost certainly extra government subsidies too.
But politicians should be leaders, not followers. Everyone wants a better Britain. We must make the case. How about using real political courage to support the disadvantaged for once?
* Matthew is a Lib Dem activist who blogs at thinkingliberal.co uk. He is Chair of the Battersea & Tooting Lib Dems.