Monday 29th May 2017
Andy Slaughter, Shadow Minister for Housing and Shadow Minister for London and Labour MP for Hammersmith
There now appears to be a recognition by the Government, however belated, that we are in the midst of a national housing crisis on a scale not seen since the post-war period.
Housing problems reported by the sector, and witnessed by MPs in their weekly surgeries, are not only more numerous and complex, they are entrenched and endemic, and have spread far beyond London and the south-east. Many people who would have found suitable accommodation for themselves and their families in past decades are, today, unable to afford to buy a home or are struggling to pay their rent. There is a chronic shortage of social housing and increasingly high numbers forced to sleep rough.
In Birmingham, rough sleeping rose by 50 per cent in 2016 alone, whilst in Manchester the gap between rent and local housing allowance is projected to rise to £239 per month by 2020. Meanwhile, in London, the average house price in 2016 was ten times the average salary. So while it is welcome that the government has finally acknowledged the scale of the housing crisis, the reality is that rather than taking steps to tackle it, the policies pursued by the government often continue to make it worse.
For many people in Britain, the only type of housing which is affordable is housing association or council rented property, but due to the Housing and Planning Act 2016, these are both under attack from right-to-buy and forced sale schemes. Yet those schemes come at a time when housing association and council property is already in extremely short supply, such as in Barking and Dagenham where there are 50 times more people on the housing waiting list than properties available.
Meanwhile, for renters in the private sector, and increasingly for those in council and housing association property, the local housing allowance freeze and the overall benefit cap are making it difficult for people to afford their rent, particularly in high-value areas. Those policies are creating a shortfall between housing benefit and rent, which is not covered by the sticking-plaster catch-all of Discretionary Housing Payments.
Given that background, the highly-anticipated Housing White Paper, published this February, was supposed to be the Government’s chance to set out its plans to tackle the crisis. However, what was revealed upon publication was a vacuum in both policy and vision. The White Paper lacked any new ideas about the construction of social and affordable housing, despite the fact that it is these types of properties that are needed most if we are to tackle the housing crisis.
It included only warm words on reforming the private rented sector, and on planning to lift policies from Labour’s Lyons Review but to significantly water them down. Where Labour has pledged to introduce three-year private sector tenancies, the Government has merely committed to “taking steps to promote longer tenancies on new build rental homes”.
And yet the top line that accompanied the White Paper was that the Conservatives no longer present themselves as the party of home ownership for all, and now promote private renting as a tenancy of first choice for many people. That makes it more necessary that they improve security, affordability and conditions in the sector.
The Government does support some laudable initiatives, such as the Homelessness Reduction Bill. But support in principle does not find one more home, as the Bill’s sponsor concedes. Whilst the Government has allocated £61 million in total for the substantial new duties in the Bill, London Councils have calculated that it will cost London Boroughs over £70 million a year, and that this cost will not diminish, let alone disappear after two years. The burden will therefore fall on the councils themselves and, thereby, on all those seeking help, including those in priority need.
Labour has already set out plans to build at least one million homes in the next Parliament, half of them social homes, whilst ending rough sleeping and reforming the private rented sector. Those steps are urgent and long overdue, not least because the present Government has wasted seven years, and looks set to do little, or nothing, for the rest of its term to tackle what has become a national scandal, disgracing Britain in the twenty first century.