Opinion: It’s time to say Yes to Homes

Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis. There are 1.8m households on waiting lists for affordable homes, totalling over 4.5m people. Millions of young people are priced out of the housing market, unlikely to ever be able to afford to buy their own home. Poor quality, overcrowded accommodation impacts significantly on the health and well-being of its residents. It is undoubtedly one of the great social crises of my generation.

Yet for all the statistics, case studies and figures there are two that really stand out – 98,280 and 240,000. The first is the number of new homes built last year, the second is the number we need annually to house the population. Of course there are regional differences, but the bottom line remains. Fundamentally we are not building enough homes for the people who live in this country.

This crisis will only get worse. An ageing population, a vast increase in the number of people living alone and a declining number of homes being built have driven the crisis. However, there has also been a second baby boom in the 2000s, meaning that not only do we need to catch up after 30 years of not building enough, but we are about to have even more people to house.

Yet over the last 30 years the number of homes has steadily decreased under governments of all political colours. Given the size of the crisis the obvious question is why?

To answer this question the National Housing Federation, which represents England’s housing associations, commissioned the Social Market Foundation to write a report looking at the relationship between politicians and housing over the last century up to the present day. The SMF interviewed ministers and key figures from all parties and analysed manifestos over the years. The resulting report, entitled “The Politics of Housing”, will inform their thinking around the “Towards a Vision project” looking forwards at the future of the housing world over the next 20 years.

So what did the Federation find? Well, unsurprisingly the most successful Governments in tackling housing problems have been those during times where problems were very visible. So in the inter-war period where slum clearance was a priority, and in the post-WW2 period where vast numbers of homes were bombed, hundreds of thousands of homes were built every year, reaching a peak of 350,000 in the late 60s.

When problems are about future supply and affordability politicians have been much less keen to act. It is not since 1988 that we have reached 200,000 new build homes. This precipitous fall in new homes has coincided with the continued rise and rise of home ownership. The political agenda has shifted to support home ownership and away from building homes.

This is also partly fuelled by a more market based ideology. The largest numbers of homes were delivered when significant numbers of publicly owned homes were built. We have moved away from direct subsidy, preferring to subsidise low income households in private rented sector properties at extortionate rents. The result? A massive housing benefit bill of over £20bn, and little new build supported by the taxpayer to drive the market forwards. For every £1 we spend on housing, only 5p goes on building, and 95p goes to the benefit bill.

However, it is also about political will. Many of you who have been involved in elections in recent years will know that when it comes to housing the most vocal are those who own their own homes and have an interest in blocking development from happening. Gone are the days when political manifestos boasted about how many hundreds of thousands of homes they would build if elected – they are replaced with campaigns against development and new homes, perhaps with the odd sprinkling of bubble-inducing “Help to Buy” style schemes.

So what of the future for housing? How do we move forwards and ensure that we tackle the current crisis and provide for the next generation? The Federation wants to hear from you. If you have ideas and thoughts about the future of housing visit our website here.

Ultimately, for me if we are to tackle the chronic lack of housing in this country politicians need to be braver and bolder and stand up for new homes. We need to empower those left out of the debate. We need to make sure the voices of those trapped in the housing purgatory of endless waiting lists, and cramped private rented accommodation run by landlords who frequently don’t meet their obligations, are not silenced or drowned out. We need to stop saying “no” and start saying “Yes to Homes”.

I know the electoral temptations of the easy option. When I was a Councillor and Housing Portfolio Holder in Oxford I saw how vocal opponents were. But I also know that you can deliver new homes and still win. The largest development in Oxford for a generation, 885 new homes at Barton West, is one I put forwards, on a greenfield site in my former ward. It’s now got planning permission and will be built over the next few years. After putting that site forwards I still won the ward, which was a hyper-marginal seat. I’d urge all councillors reading this to step forwards, to join the National Housing Federation’s campaign, and say “Yes to Homes”. Future generations will not thank us if we do not rise to the challenge now.

* Patrick Murray is a Liberal Democrat member in London who works in housing policy.

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5 Comments

  • It’s a decent article, but it seems to cover existing ground. For me it all comes down to how committed we are to localism. Our instincts are all that these planning decisions are made locally. But then it is the objectors who are enfranchised, local councillors come under great pressure to join them.

    I personally have an issue with people who say that there should be just enough house-building in an area so that THEY can live there, but then that there shouldn’t be any more for anyone else to. I have lost plenty of votes with this approach.

    The only real solution I can see is a revoking of planning law, so that housing developments of greater than say 50 houses are all decided centrally (or say there are punitive damages on councils who reject proposals which aren’t clearly flawed.) Do we have the courage to go down this route? I can’t see it, although I would love us to be the true party of house-building.

  • Chris Holman 31st Oct '13 - 2:31pm

    Well said Patrick Murray. Perhaps we need to be really radical. I know from my time as a Councillor that sites with Planning Permission for housing often lie undeveloped for years.
    Should the rules be changed so that the local Council can Compulsorily Purchase such land where development has not started within, say, 2 years AT IT’S PRE- PLANNING PERMISSION VALUE and use it to build affordable housing.
    I realise that is perhaps more anarchic than radical but it may just need something that strong to get the developers moving.

  • One correction: “This precipitous fall in new homes has coincided with the continued rise and rise of home ownership.” Home ownership peaked in 2005. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17026462

  • patrick murray 1st Nov '13 - 6:32am

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I would encourage anyone interested to have a look at the Federation’s Towards a Vision project and contribute ideas for how the housing world might evolve and indeed what part housing associations will play http://www.hothouse.org.uk/towards-a-vision/

    @Tim – you are quite right. The point the SMF’s report makes was more that over recent generations the policy aim has been centred on home ownership due to the increase over time of home ownership. Recent trends towards private renting may alter the dynamic around housing politics somewhat, but at present home ownership is the prism through which politicians engage with housing and homeowners are still the largest (and most politically engaged) group.

  • Helen Dudden 10th Nov '13 - 9:06am

    I have been supporting the issue here in Bath. We need to do something on the quality of some of the housing stock there is, within the social housing in Bath.

    Regeneration is another subject, also the “decent homes” still is not completed.

    Good homes, that are well insulated with heating that is affordable by those who cannot afford to buy.

    If insulation was a common factor in everyday housing situations, would we have such an urgent need to look for more energy?

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