The housing crisis is a national scandal

This article originally appeared on Progress Online on 24th September 2018

Theresa May has orchestrated some excellent PR this month. In a last minute attempt to paper over some quite significant gaps in her government’s domestic agenda ahead of Tory conference, a number of half-baked housing policies have flown off the shelf.

Most notably came the announcement of £2bn in funding for housing associations. There are a few snags with this though. First, its déjà vu from this time last year when May announced a £2bn council house building fund at the 2017 Tory conference. It was the first time since 2010 that the government had committed any new funding to social housing. Unfortunately 12 months on we are still waiting for this fund to materialise – along with the homes our country desperately needs.

The government clearly do not see the need to rush on this matter. The £2bn will not actually be made available until 2022. Meanwhile in England alone there are 123,000 children who living as homeless as I write. Nearly 5,000 people will sleep rough on our streets this winter, including over Christmas.

Clearly this picture is not enough to move May to immediate action.

The government has previous on this. The former housing secretary Sajid Javid surrendered £817m from his departmental budget in 2017/18 saying that it ‘is no longer required’. Try telling that to the homeless family sharing a single room in a bed and breakfast, waiting to be housed by their cash-strapped local council.

Second, the new money barely touches the sides of the problem – a problem of the Tories’ own making. Their heavy cuts to grants for social landlords are a key driver of the housing crisis. Pledged government capital for these homes has fallen from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015. To illustrate the problem in 2016, 37,985 ‘affordable’ homes were built, significantly less than 53,917 in 2009. Despite Tory efforts to cull the waiting list for council housing, by making it harder for low income families to access it, there are still over a million people desperately waiting for affordable housing.

It is painful to look at the damage the Tories have inflicted on social housing. When last in government Labour undertook the biggest affordable housing investment programme in a generation, committing grant funding of over £4bn a year by 2009/10 to fund council and housing association homes. But figures from the Chartered Institute of Housing reveal that this has now fallen to less than £500m – amounting to a cut of 90 per cent.

What is more, since 2010 an average of 49,000 council owned-properties have been lost each year through right-to-buy, with councils being forced to sell-off their stock. Despite this, last year the number of social rented homes built was the lowest on record – probably since the second world war – and the number of new low-cost homes to buy had halved since 2010.

Meanwhile the private rented sector has borne the brunt of the crisis. If regulated properly private landlords are part of the solution to the housing crisis, but the sector is overheated – rents are inflated and too much housing benefit is going to landlords who provide a shoddy service. It is a national scandal and frankly immoral that public money is going to dodgy landlords, who evict families for no reason or who provide sub-standard accommodation. The government has sat idly by and let this happen.

Labour have made it clear that we need a social housing revolution – just like the one we delivered in government following the second world war. Our green paper on affordable housing – Housing for the Many – set out our plans to build a million genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, including the biggest council house-building programme in at least 30 years. Championed by my colleague John Healey, Labour understand both the gravity of the housing crisis and the remedy our country needs.

It can be done. Since 2010 the number of private housing units delivered has been more than double the number of total affordable housing units. We need the same urgency from government across the social rented sector as we have seen in parts of the private housing market. What our country needs is a bold vision for housing backed up by a proper funding framework, not flimsy promises of ‘jam tomorrow’.

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