Family-led housing protest, October 2022. Photo: Steve Eason / CC BY-NC 2.0 Family-led housing protest, October 2022. Photo: Steve Eason / CC BY-NC 2.0

Terina Hine assesses the deepening housing crisis and takes apart the government’s inadequate plans

Crippling rents and mortgages, evictions and repossessions, damp, overcrowding, sofa surfing, this is the reality of Britain’s broken housing system.

Homelessness is rising rapidly; numbers living in temporary accommodation have reached a 25-year high – up 10% in the last year alone. Housing construction is at its lowest level since the Second World War and nearly all new builds are constructed by private developers. The majority of councils failed to build a single social home in the last five years leaving 1.2 million families languishing on waiting lists.

So, house building proposals should be welcomed. But although Michael Gove, the government’s housing minister, may recognise the need to build more homes, it is unlikely his proposals will deliver in a way that makes any difference. According to Shelter, his new plans may even do ‘more harm than good’.

Gove’s plans are designed to protect leafy shires from unsightly housing developments and minimise the impact on Tory voters by focussing development on urban, brownfield locations. By liberalising planning regulations and building on brownfield sites: converting warehouses, disused agricultural buildings and derelict shops, the suburbs and shires, where Tory votes stack up, are protected.

But inner-city land is not cheap, and urban infrastructure is already struggling. Decontaminating and converting commercial properties to residential use is expensive; the liberalising of planning regulations may reduce the price but at what cost? For private developers the focus is on profit, not safe, decent homes, as the residents of Grenfell will testify.

The long-term failure to raise housing benefit in line with price rises, or wages in line with inflation, ensures housing remains unaffordable, whether to buy or rent. The Tories always focus on home ownership, today a fantasy for even the well paid. Across England, the average house costs more than ten times the average salary, fifteen times in a typical London borough, leaving insecure, private rentals as the only answer.

The private rental sector is barely regulated. It is estimated that 600,000 privately rented homes pose a serious, immediate risk to health from issues such as mould and damp. But nothing is done. The long-awaited Renters Reform Bill continues its glacial progress through parliament. Hardly surprising, when one in five Conservative MPs is a landlord.

Gove’s reforms will not solve the housing crisis. What is needed is investment in good quality social and affordable housing located in the places people want to live. Shoddy slums and unsafe towers are not the answer.

From Counterfire freesheet August 2023

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