It’s difficult to portray the contempt with which the Tories view the victims of this acute squeeze on housing. A large majority of the electorate believe the bedroom tax is wrong and unjust, yet when a UN special investigator on housing called on it to be withdrawn, a Tory housing minister excoriated it as a ‘Marxist diatribe’. But if the Tories are so obsessed with the idea that in the housing scarcity they’ve created themselves through their economic policies, every available area of accommodation must be utilised, why do they ignore large areas of London (and also other cities) which the super-rich have bought up as an asset and then left to decay unoccupied by them and unlet? Why force poor people to move because they cannot afford the bedroom tax, even though there’s a huge shortage of single-bed accommodation for them to move into, but then at the same time allow 15% of new-build homes in Greater London to be snapped up by foreign buyers, rising to 70% in the city centre, who then leave their properties vacant? In one and the same city a third of the mansions in the most expensive stretch of Bishops Avenue ‘billionaires row’ in north London lie idle, while over the last 3 years the number of families forced to move into bed and breakfast has tripled.
The real answer to the problem is of course to build more houses. Last year 100,000 houses were built in the UK; in 1953 it was over 300,000. So why aren’t more houses being built when there are now 1.8 million households on the waiting lists? The Tories blame restrictive planning laws, but that is a very small part of the overall picture. Far more important is prolonged austerity which reduces incomes and limits affordability for an increasing proportion of the population, a reluctance of the construction companies to build when their market is being continually squeezed, an inability of local authorities to build social housing when their budgets have been cut by 40%, and Osborne’s Help to Buy mortgage scheme which in the absence of increased housing supply pushes prices more and more out of reach for first-time young house-buyers.
So what should be done? An annual mansion tax should be levied on properties worth over £2m and the proceeds used to start a major house-building programme focused strongly on social housing for the poorest households. The bedroom tax should be repealed, as Labour has pledged, but a tax should be imposed on homes left empty for more than 6 months not as a multiple of the council tax but rather as a percentage of the total value of the property. An industrial policy is needed to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing and towards the north, both of which would steadily ease the insufferable pressure on housing in and around London. Tighter regulation of bad priave sector landlords is also urgently needed as Rachmanism is beginning to revive, and rent controls which disregard the scarcity factor clearly need to be reintroduced at least temporarily.