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Housin Policy

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apart from the libdems, who said somewhere in their manifesto something about makin these disused buildings into homes

issue exemplifies the poverty of political debate in the election campaign. Housing policy impacts on peoples' everyday lives like health or education, but for the past three decades it has occupied a marginal space in political discourse. Not since Margaret Thatcher enabled council tenants to buy their home has housing policy been a touchstone issue. This is perverse when millions of people are in housing need and speculative property investment has contributed to economic meltdown. But with limited exceptions, the political establishment is silent on the housing crisis.

The dwindling political priority of housing is reflected in the role of housing minister. There have been 30 since the war , on average they stay in office less than two years and are no longer full members of the cabinet. The rate of turnover has doubled in the last decade, suggesting that ambitions politicians see the housing portfolio as, at best, a stepping stone.

It was not ever thus. Tony Benn relates that housing was first on the agenda of every postwar cabinet meeting. This reflected not only the urgency of the issue, but the determination of government to do something about it. In a period of severe financial austerity, between 1945 and 1950 the state built one million homes, a trend that reached its peak in 1954 when local authorities built almost 240,000. Last year the total for all new homes was 118,000 and this year could fall below 100,000.

The scale of today's housing and economic crisis is not dissimilar. There are 5 million people on housing waiting lists and the number of families in temporary accommodation has risen by a third in the last decade. There are over one hundred repossessions a day, but this is sometimes portrayed as a success because it's not as bad as the mid-1990s. The fact that the current housing minister (how many people can name him?) described repossession as sometimes "the best option" illustrates the literal hopelessness of current policy. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of housing need. Even more people have their lives blighted by the struggle of finding and keeping a roof over their heads, priced out of the housing market altogether, or paying a third or more of their income on housing costs. The housing minister (it's John Healey) has described the scale of the crisis in a previous Cif article, but admits little responsibility for it.

The underlying policy trends that have led us to this have remained the same for decades, but were thrown into sharp relief by the 2008 crash. While the current administration persists with the "wasn't me guv" narrative, the truth is that every government in the developed world (and many in the underdeveloped) were completely seduced by the notion that a speculative property market and private home ownership could not only fuel endless economic growth, but promote social equity. That illusion is now shattered, but there appears to be no Plan B.

The most disgraceful and disturbing aspect of this failure of political leadership is the deliberate confusion of the housing crisis with immigration. Since the election was called, Gordon Brown has held four high-profile press conferences on immigration, but not one on housing. Meanwhile, myths and distortions about access to social housing are allowed to run unchallenged, with predictable consequences.

I was a housing officer on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 when the BNP won its first council seat. The area had seen millions of pounds of public money spent on "regeneration", but 80% of new homes built were for owner occupation at prices few local people could afford. The BNP exploited the resulting resentment, fomenting myths about allocation policies and explicitly blaming Bangladeshis for the affordable housing shortage.

I've recently been joining the campaign against the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, where precisely the same dynamic of housing scarcity and racist scapegoating are at play. I spoke to a man who asked the same question I'd heard on the Isle of Dogs 17 years earlier – "where are my kids going to live?" His council has done better than some at providing affordable homes, but still only meets 16% of the actual need, hamstring not only by funding restrictions, but by the pre-crash policy infatuation with private property developers.

When Barack Obama pledged to reform healthcare policy it sparked a Great Debate in the US. We need something similar about housing policy in the UK. There are different ideas about the solution, but what cannot be denied is that current policy has failed. There are chinks of light on the horizon. Local councils are building again and all the main parties appear to agree about restoring council housing to the mainstream of policy. But Lynsey Hanley's right: piecemeal, underfunded short-termism won't work. As Dave Gibbons argues we need a balanced housing strategy, not just on empty homes, but one that destigmatises rented tenure – particularly council housing – and defuses the volatility of the housing market by slaying the political holy cow of home ownership.

• This article was commissioned after the author contacted us via a You tell us thread. If you would like to suggest your own topics for Cif to cover, please see the latest thread


one comments:

When MT told people they had the right to buy their homes - she forgot to mention replacing that stock for the generations who came after... and lets not forget the buy-to-let mafia for whom houses are an investment and not a home.

I agree a housing debate is needed but I don't expect any change. In the UK housing = wealth and I suspect there isn't a party brave enough to tinker with this mindset. Where I live a 1 bedroom flat - yes FLAT not house is on the market for £425,000 - how can folk on ordinary wages compete with that?

And it's not just about building new homes but new good quality homes. 100 + years later Victorian terraces are still desirable abodes. I doubt I will be saying that about the current crop of identi-kit boxes being built.

serious issue this...

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they stopped building houses

smash a building, call it regeneration

put up a store maybe

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