As we enter 2009, there are four issues at the top of the political agenda – the handling of the financial-economic meltdown, post office privatisation, Government support for the third runway at Heathrow, and the collapse of policy to meet housing need. The first three have had a lot of attention, the fourth far less than it deserves. It should be centre-stage for 2009.
Government housing policy is a desert, for two main reasons. Social housebuilding, where the requirement is enormous and still growing, has all but vanished. And the Government continues to use housing as a means to advance its neo-liberal agenda rather than as a means to meet housing need. In both these respects there is little difference between New Labour and the Tories, but the victims are the poorest in our society.
Council housebuilding was hugely cut back by Thatcher, but there were still 13,000 Council houses built in 1990 at the end of her term. Last year there were 200 built (and 100 in 2005), which is hardly more than zero by comparison with the colossal scale of unmet need. There are now 1,700,000 households on Council waiting lists, plus about 80,000 homeless in temporary accommodation, and there are also up to 2 million on housing association waiting lists.
Yet the Government’s response has been puny. Shelter and other housing organisations estimate that some 30-60,000 social homes (i.e. where the rent is significantly below market levels and therefore affordable by the fifth of the population on the lowest incomes) need to be built each year to prevent the waiting lists growing, and much more if the backlog is to be cleared within a reasonable time. But the Government’s target in the 2008 Housing Bill was a mere 2,500 social homes per year. That target (not necessarily the same as the number actually delivered) was recently raised to 5,500 social homes over the next 18 months (i.e. a rate of about 3,650 per year) by bringing forward £400m expenditure budgeted for future years. Though welcome, this is pitifully short of the numbers required if damp, over-crowded, unrepaired, poor-quality homes are not going to continue to generate silent misery for millions.
Second, this might all be more tolerable if the Government was making a serious effort to meet the ocean of housing need that is engulfing so many cities and towns in Britain today. But it isn’t. The total of Government spend devoted to housing has been drastically cut from 6.1% in 1980 to 1.6% now, a loss to housing if the 1980 proportion had been maintained now amounting to £22bn a year! Moreover, even the current greatly reduced expenditure on housing has been focused overwhelmingly on promoting owner occupation – fine for those who can afford it and want it, but what for those who can’t and are in far greater need?
Even now the Government’s emphasis in its latest housing package, announced last month, is aimed at first-time buyers frozen out of the mortgage market by offering a shared equity scheme – again welcome as such, but hardly the best value for money for either the Government or recipients when jobs and incomes are greatly at risk in a collapsing housing market. The scheme will not help anybody in negative equity. And the Government’s recently announced mortgage rescue scheme, concentrated on up to 6,000 vulnerable homeowners at risk of dispossession, by offering a mortgage to rent switch is very much needed, though far short both of the 90,000 repossessions expected in 2009 and of a full-blown scheme enabling local authorities to buy up such properties for temporary renting until the tenants were able to resume house purchase. But it’s not just the inadequacy of aid to vulnerable house-buyers that’s the problem, it’s the fact that the main thrust of housing policy is wholly wrongly directed for ideological reasons to the margins of owner occupation rather than the critical mass of desperate need for hugely more social housing.