We Need Real Action on the Housing Disaster

By Adam Peggs

There is a sense from some quarters that the worst of the housing crisis is behind us. This claim is not baseless. Despite being the party of landlords  there have been modest improvements in tenant’s rights from the Tories in the last few years. The building of ‘affordable’ housing has been on the up, and construction of Housing Association and council houses has risen (albeit only by a small amount) too. The decline of Buy to Let has helped to reduce the heat in the market, leading to some signs of slowing rent rises.

Yet this argument has been overstated. And quite significantly too. Homelessness has more than doubled – with appalling human costs. The numbers on the social housing waiting list are gigantic.

According to Crisis, “Four fifths of low income working age households living in the private rented sector spend more than one third of their net income on housing costs”. The epidemic of unaffordability, is also an epidemic of anxiety, poor standards of living and of insecurity.

The number of households defined as in ‘housing need’ currently amounts to 4.75 million. While a further 240,000 households of under 40s live in private accommodation they cannot afford. The number of people living in temporary accommodation has risen by 56% overall, and rough sleeping in London is estimated to be at an all-time high. In my home borough of Hackney some 3000 families are trapped in temporary accommodation. Across England one in five adults have experienced mental health problems due to problems with their housing situation. Inequality in housing is high compared to other parts of the world, while levels of affordability are low and tenant’s rights are especially weak.

Over the last decade the UK has delivered an average of only 11,400 homes per year – many of which were not being let at social rented levels. Modest increases in social housing in recent years have only been a fraction of the level needed. The state of the housing market, especially for working class people, is dire.

The amount of social housing in England has been falling consistently since the 1980s, a clear illustration of one of the continuities between differing administrations. Social housebuilding steadily declined from 1997 to 2007 continuing the Thatcher era trend. In 2007 the social housing waiting list was at a whopping 1.6 million, close to its peak under David Cameron, and considerably bigger than in the late nineties. These should be seen in the context of a focus on market-based solutions, caution or reluctance when it came to reversing deregulation and a desire to focus on appealing to property owners.

This was reflected by the proliferation of both poor, undignified and insecure housing conditions and marked levels of homelessness. While rough sleeping was lower than today, statutory homelessness figures reached historic highs in the mid-2000s.

In effect, Britain has been in a long-run housing crisis, with a system not meeting even basic needs. This crisis has been a consequence of decades of economic liberalisation and is ‘structural, with deep economic roots’. It is not just a case of insufficient supply or a consequence of recent cuts.

In its current phase, there is a much clamouring from the media and various other quarters for Labour to cast aside much or all of its social programme. And worse, do so at a time where we are beset by a climate crisis, radical levels of inequality and the rise of the nationalist right. In a period where the UK’s economic settlement looks set to be remade it would be an historic mistake to fail to realise the scale of the required change.

In this context, it is a shame that, besides one example, housing has hardly been mentioned in the Labour leadership contest. Some would argue this is a consequence of a degree of consensus on policy – at least on domestic economic and social policy. Yet this ignores that there is considerable pressure, both within the party and outside of it, to drift back toward the centre-ground. It seems that this pressure will be sustained in the coming months and years.

The left should be ready to carry forward the ambitious agenda of the last few years: To overturn our iniquitous housing model and deliver a major shift in how housing is distributed, provided and controlled. This can only mean retaining the popular commitment to build at least half a million council houses over a five-year parliament. It must mean an end to Right to Buy, already scrapped in Scotland and Wales and whose popularity has now waned, alongside its cousin Right to Acquire. And it should surely mean standing for major expansions in tenants’ rights, taking on Buy-to-Let and slum landlordism and waging a real offensive against housing inequality.

That Scotland’s centre-left govt currently is aiming to build levels of social housing comparable (in per head terms) to that outlined in the Labour manifesto, underlines that our party’s offering has been mainstream.

In the years after the second world war, hundreds of thousands of decent-quality council homes were built, and the housing market was reconfigured to the benefit of the great majority. Today our levels of social housing are totally inadequate and the stock is continuing to be sold off, as homelessness, poverty and insecurity rise and rise, and decent-quality housing conditions are out of reach to a whole class of people.

A new approach to housing, with a sharp break from the past, is needed now more than ever.