Opinion: Lib Dems must commit to end the housing crisis within a generation

Matilda HouseThis Monday in Glasgow, Lib Dem conference will debate motion F21 “Building the Affordable Homes We Need”. The Liberal Democrats have a fantastic opportunity to tackle the greatest social challenge of my generation, the housing crisis.

The economic and social cost of this crisis is huge. England needs around 245,000 new homes a year just to meet demand. Yet we are building half the homes we need. The latest figures show that the average income needed to buy a home is £36,500, higher than the incomes of more than half of the households in the country.

Add to that the largest baby boom since the 1960s, between 2001 and 2012, and we can see that this is a crisis that threatens to engulf the hopes and dreams of a generation, many of whom will never be able to afford a home they can truly call their own. But, for me, this crisis has always been about more than numbers.

There are many housing stories I could tell from my time as a councillor, my work in the housing policy world, and as a trustee at the pioneering charity helping those experiencing homelessness achieve their potential, the Mayday Trust.

As Housing Portfolio Holder in Oxford I was contacted regularly by people living in poor quality, cramped, overcrowded accommodation, which was causing significant harm to their and their children’s health. I lost count of the number of letters written by GPs trying to help desperate families escape to homes with some room to breathe, where their children didn’t have to sleep 3 or 4 to a room.

I will never forget the young people who had ended up on the streets following a family breakdown, or had suffered at the hands of Rachmanite landlords, or who had been woefully let down by a broken care system.

Are we really going to let them struggle on alone, their plight ignored by politicians who lack the courage to give voice to the voiceless?

The early actions of the Coalition Government, including the 63% cut to grants for affordable homes and the introduction of the Orwellian-named “affordable rent” policy (80% of the market rent is rarely affordable in areas where the crisis is most acute), were fatal to building the large numbers of affordable homes needed for the 1.8 million households on housing waiting lists. This was, as I wrote here a year ago, a direct result of failing to put our existing housing policy in our manifesto in 2010 into practice.

However, we have a great opportunity to right this wrong.

The truth is there is no one single silver bullet that can solve this crisis – it is more a form of silver gatling gun that we need. The motion before conference builds on the excellent 2012 “Decent Homes for All” paper which aimed to increase housebuilding up to 300,000 new homes a year, and focuses on 4 critical areas – leadership, finance, land and freedoms.

Leadership
For generations successive Governments have ignored the housing crisis. Politicians have cowered in the face of articulate and vocal NIMBYs. If we’re serious about driving this great social change through we need leadership, and some political courage, at the top. I very much welcome the proposal in the motion to develop an overarching strategy, and a ministerial taskforce to ensure we build the homes Britain desperately needs. It took a generation to get in to this mess, it will take us a generation to get out of it. We must have a clear strategy that looks beyond the short-term political cycle.

Finance
Of course, more investment is needed to build genuinely affordable homes. To pretend otherwise is dishonest. We must remember though that housing is a great economic multiplier –for every £1 invested on building new homes, £2.41 is generated in the wider economy; and every new home creates 2.3 jobs. Due in large part to the creativity and willingness of housing associations to invest their own finance, affordable housing is still being built. But the current approach of very low grant rates, high levels of debt by housing associations, and housing benefit topping up higher rents is just not sustainable. This motion is ambitious – it’s not just about government grant. Instead the creation of a Housing Investment Bank will bring together new sources of finance, encouraging more innovation and a much greater return for public investment.

Land
It is pretty obvious, but it’s difficult to build homes if there is no land. Oxford’s housing crisis is undoubtedly exacerbated by a tightly drawn greenbelt, with few brownfield sites to develop. Whilst the motion does not seek to open up that issue, it provides measures which will help bring more land forwards for development to ease the housing crisis, not least through powers for Councils aimed at stimulating garden villages, towns and cities.

Freedoms
I know from my current role working in housing policy that housing associations and others are doing fantastic work trying to build the homes we need, and provide services that help people get back in to work, or vulnerable people live independently. But they are fighting this crisis with one hand tied behind their back. They have the ambition to do so much more, but need the freedoms to create new services and develop new more homes. They certainly have the necessary vision.

Councils too have a big role to play. For too long they have had both hands tied behind their backs, unable to develop new homes. This motion seeks to address this. The housing crisis is so large that it’s not about pitting different developers against each other — we need to work in partnership across the sector, and see more community land trusts and self-builders too, which the motion also seeks to encourage.

As well as backing this motion, Liberal Democrat councillors and activists can take action to solve the crisis in our communities. It is not just a national problem – we must show leadership locally too. I served on an area planning committee for the six years I was a Councillor. I know too well the wrath of the NIMBY. Oxford is stacked with wealthy homeowners who are lucky enough never to have seen the sharp end of the housing crisis.

But it is not good enough to take the easy way out. Of course there will always be some developments that are not appropriate for certain sites, but the truth is there are many perfectly decent housing schemes that are rejected on a daily basis by planning committees.

We must, and can, do better. I am not just saying this – I put my money where my mouth is in the 2008 local election. Despite being in one of the most marginal wards in the city, I put forwards a greenfield site in my own ward for a development of up to 1,000 homes and got re-elected. It turns out there are enough people who understand that we desperately need homes and are willing to vote for it. It is being built now, and will be the largest development in Oxford since the early 1990s. For those of you who haven’t already signed up to the Yes to Homes campaign, please do, and help us build a movement to tackle the NIMBY lobby.

There are many more arguments that could, and I hope will, be made to support this excellent motion, not least the economic impact of building new homes. But for me the chance to tackle one of our society’s great social ills is something the Liberal Democrats should not pass up. It will take time, but we must channel the radicalism of great social reforming liberals like Lloyd George, Joe Chamberlain, Keynes and Beveridge, and make solving the housing crisis within a generation a central plank of our manifesto in 2015. People need homes, vote for motion F21 and be part of the solution.

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

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8 Comments

  • I haven’t read F21 but I can guarantee that if house building for sale is the major focus, such a policy will fail. Major effort should be pit into public housing for rent, and changing the economic system to enable that. Reducing dominance of the SE in the economy is essential, and a return to incentives for regional redistribution of economic activity.

  • If you think people will be happy the housing crisis that is largely credited to the high EU imagration will be happy it will be a generation think again would be my advice

  • Robert Wootton 5th Oct '14 - 11:53pm

    If you want 300 000 extra homes built per year, the you need to change the components of the economic system to enable 300 000 extra people to be able to afford a home who currently cannot do so.

  • I know too well the wrath of the NIMBY. Oxford is stacked with wealthy homeowners who are lucky enough never to have seen the sharp end of the housing crisis.

    But the party is happy to join in elsewhere.. sigh…

    http://yorklibdems.org.uk/en/article/2013/699508/residents-oppose-housing-plans

  • From the level of arguments presented, I wouldn’t of credited Patrick of having had any real experience of housing; I recommends he reads Teena’s LDV article ( https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-lets-keep-social-housing-in-london-42627.html ).

    But fundamentally he gets lost in his rage against “NIMBY’s” et al and so doesn’t provide an rationale as to why “Lib Dems must commit to end the housing crisis within a generation”. If the target is to ending the housing crisis within a generation then we have to address both sides of the supply and demand coin and that includes population – returning the population to its 1998 levels would have some very significant impacts on housing need and demand…

  • Nigel Cheeseman 6th Oct '14 - 3:18pm

    I agree with much of what has been said in this article. What is missing in my view is the option of high density housing in city centres. I appreciate that in places such as Oxford, the conservation and heritage situation adds difficulty, but without higher densities in built up areas we are faced with the loss, not simply of green belt, but also of good quality agricutural land. The City of London shows what can be done when money but not space is no object (albeit not significantly for housing). High-rise housing has a bad name in this country for two significant reasons. One is that many schemes built during the sixties and seventies were poorly constructed, leading to squalid living conditions from damp and expensive to heat flats. The other is that many of them were sink estates for the most disadvantaged and problematic families, partly as a result of slum clearances.
    There is no reason why high quality apartments should not be built in our city centres, close to employment and paid for either by mortgages or rent. I am not including affordable or social housing in this scenario, partly to avoid the mistakes of the past. Social housing waiting lists need to be addressed in different ways. Having more housing available at the top and middle will ease the pressure and make housing more affordable in the same way that I would buy a used car cheaply as the third or fourth owner.

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