Monday, 13 June 2011

Homes not headlines - in search of credible housing policies

I read with interest today that Ed Miliband is set to talk about a radical new housing policy, in his 'fightback' speech today.

On closer inspection it seems he is simply going to argue for tweaks to councils allocations policies in favour of more 'deserving' households in an attempt to redistribute homes more fairly:
"One area where people’s sense of fairness is under threat is social housing,’ he will say. ‘In Manchester, as well as helping the most vulnerable families and disabled people with housing, they prioritise households who are giving something back to their communities – making a contribution – for example, people who work for or run local voluntary organisations. They also look to reward people who have been good tenants in the past and who have paid their rent on time and never been involved in any antisocial behaviour.’
Whilst laudable his stance misses the point entirely.

Miliband's pronouncement is the latest in a long line of ill-thought out housing policy announcements which fail to address the key issue facing UK housing policy: that of lack of supply.

Recent examples of this approach which appears to be motivated by a desire to grab the headlines rather solve housing problems:
  • The last (Labour) government changed the rules to enable councils to develop their own allocations policies.
  • The current government via the Localism Bill is bringing in new powers to enable Councils to vary the length of tenure from fixed term to lifetime.
  • Last week Tory ministers floated the idea of evicting Council tenants earning over £100,000.
At most these changes will make a few thousand more homes available to people but the downside is they could also potentially displace needy people.

Not only that, talking in the newspapers about who should get access to social housing contributes to a myth that people living in social housing now shouldn't be there.

This breeds mistrust and resentment between individuals and communities.

In short, it's not helpful and it does not solve the problem of housing.

I am no expert but I can tell you that five years as a local councillor has taught me not that the wrong people are getting social housing, but there simply is not enough of it to go round.

This is not a moral issue about deserving versus undeserving.

Surely the real issue is one of affordability - people who can afford to own their homes are the exception not the rule in many communities.

The number of first time buyers has fallen and buying a home is out of reach for many young people.

In Reading, families can wait for many years to access social housing that meets there needs.

The wait for family-sized housing - 3-4 bed homes is by far the longest.

There is barely a week that goes when a family doesn't contact me in distress stuck on the Council's housing waiting list desperate to move into larger or more suitable accomodation.

What hope for them?

When I was Lead Member for Housing I was proud to deliver the first new Council homes in Reading for twenty years.

But I realised this was just the start and will only go one small step towards meeting demand for housing.

At the next Council meeting I will be challenging the new Labour Lead Councillor to do more.

There are various ways you can do this and they don't all involve building new homes.

Tackling the problem of empty homes is one, underoccupancy another.

Labour's record on increasing housing supply is not good:
  •  Labour sold off almost as many houses as they built (over half a million homes sold). 
  • Labour's total net increase in social housing stock was less than 20,000
  • Between 1997-2010 waiting lists for social housing rose by 800,000
But that was then, this is now, and with less public money around it is going to be much harder for Councils, housing associations and developers to build new homes.

The Coalition Government has set itself a tough target:
'to increase social housing supply by more each year than Labour achieved in thirteen years added together (Andrew Stunell MP).
I really hope the government meets or ideally exceeds this target. What is clear, however, is that simply tweaking the way councils allocate homes will not be enough.


Officers have confirmed there are currently just under 8,000 people registered with the Council for social housing in Reading alone.

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