Home truths

PeterSmith.jpgPeter Smith on fixing Britain’s broken housing market 

A right to a decent home should be the test of any civilised country. The quality of housing has a massive impact on people’s lives affecting both physical and mental health, education attainment and life opportunities.

In Britain today however, too many people are being let down on the housing front. Evidence of this is widespread, with homelessness numbers growing across our country and families with children stuck in inadequate temporary accommodation. Many others are living in permanent homes that are cold, damp and overcrowded – and often located in challenging neighbourhoods. And there is also a rising generation unable to afford to take that first step onto the housing ladder.

For too long, housing has been in the political shadows – with the honourable exception of Labour’s John Healey who has promoted the issue, both during his time as Housing Minister in Gordon Brown’s government and in his present role as Shadow Secretary of State for Housing.

A month ago, when I submitted housing as the topic for one of our Lords Opposition day debates later this week, I didn’t appreciate it would move so rapidly to the centre of the political stage, with a degree of panic on the issue evident during Conservative Party Conference.

Both Theresa May and her Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid expressed their views that Britain’s housing market is broken and talked up their intentions to fix the problem. Advanced briefings for the Prime Minister’s speech led to speculation about a Damascene conversion that would increase the significance of council housing in a way not seen since the days of Harold MacMillan. (As Housing Minister in 1951, he oversaw a spectacular rise in housebuilding to 300,000 units a year, including 250,000 council houses.)

So, as Mrs May began her Conference speech in Manchester last week, I wondered whether I would need to redraft my speech for this week’s debate in order to praise the government. In the event, the policy announcement proved as feeble as the PM’s voice. The grand proclamation of £2bn for social housing equated to only an additional 5,000 houses per year. Not enough to ensure the Tory manifesto commitment to build 1.5 million homes by 2022 could be fulfilled.

As MacMillan discovered, if a government wants to build a significantly increased number of houses, local authorities need to be given the freedoms to recommence building at a real scale to tackle the million plus people on their waiting lists. That is not what was offered in the speech.

Britain doesn’t have a single housing market but a series of overlapping local ones. It makes sense therefore, to engage with councils who take their place-shaping roles seriously. Indeed, they could be developing strategies to both deliver sufficient council properties reflecting local demand while also helping develop a planning framework to encourage private builders to meet local markets in a less antagonistic way.

Since 2010, there has been much tinkering with the housing market by Coalition and Conservative governments alike, and all have proved totally inadequate to tackling our severe housing crisis. Ministers should now take the bold step of releasing local authorities from the unnecessary and unhelpful bureaucratic restrictions that prevent them playing a significantly enhanced role in providing solutions. A failure to do so will see the misery caused by the current ‘broken market’ continue to affect not just millions of people now but for generations to come.

Peter Smith is a Labour Peer and Leader of Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council. He tweets @Lord_PeterSmith

Published 9th October 2017

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