Under one roof

Whitty4x3.jpgLarry Whitty says it’s time to give one minister the responsibility for both housing benefit and housing policy

In an affront to the meaning of English, the term ‘affordable housing’ is used in Tory Newspeak to mean moving to some place ‘unaffordable’ for most social housing tenants. In more general usage however, there is in most of our country a chronic lack of affordable housing in all forms of tenure; as well as rising rents and house prices in all sectors. This affects inner cities and rural areas alike, young families seeking a first time mortgage, leaseholders and tenants in the private rented sector: and those in social housing.

The current crisis in affordable housing reflects three things. 

First, a longstanding failure to build housing in this country, with housebuilding running at less than half the rate of household formation.  The lack of new homes is particularly acute at the affordable end of the market, and this situation was greatly aggravated in the early days of the Coalition when Ministers slashed funding by two thirds. 

Second, a deep prejudice against social housing tenants among elements in the Coalition and their media allies. 

And third, Ministers making aggravating interventions, such as the bedroom tax, which affect vulnerable members of our society – especially the disabled or those with disabled dependents.

While the government claims to have recognised the importance of the need to build more houses, its policies are not working. The Public Accounts Committee this week indicated that there is no proof that the much vaunted New Homes Bonus has actually created any more homes, although it may have altered where they are being built. And their Help to Buy policy, while assisting some desperate mortgage seekers and making some home owners  feel better because the market valuation  increases, will simply push up prices and put them beyond the reach of ordinary families.

When it comes to the affordable end of the market almost everything the government is doing, or refusing to do, is making the situation worse.  The bedroom tax is forcing people into arrears or to quitting their accommodation when there is no more appropriate accommodation in the locality to move to. Payment to tenants rather than social landlords is likely to increase arrears and at the same time reduce the creditworthiness of Housing Associations, limiting their ability to build or acquire additional homes. Refusal to regulate private landlords is leading to soaring rents and inadequate conditions in large parts of the burgeoning private rented sector.  

In addition, escalating rents is driving more and more people to claim housing benefit at ever higher levels of housing cost, increasing the welfare bill that the government ostensibly wants to cut. This is particularly true in London and other areas of high housing stress. Moreover, Ministers appear to want to turn the central of our capital city into somewhere that only the very rich can live. And at the same time make it even more difficult for the next generation working in the countryside to afford to live in the village where they were born and brought up.

It is true that the housing benefit bill has been soaring. But this is precisely because of the dysfunction and failures of housing markets not a failure of the welfare system as such. Those who characterise housing benefit recipients as workshy skivers overlook, perhaps deliberately, that the majority are pensioners and that the most rapidly growing numbers are among households in paid employment.

Instead of tackling our housing problems, the Coalition is intent on subsuming housing benefit into their Universal Credit system – a project that is already going seriously wrong. The real solution is to put housing benefit and housing policy together under one senior Minister and give councils and Housing Associations the backing to go to the market for funds for new build of all classes of housing.  

Only then can we use the resources to get houses built at reasonable rents and prices – rather than leading to shortages, inadequate, expensive and insecure housing, and rising welfare bills.

Larry Whitty is a backbench Labour Peer

Published 31st October 2013

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