I was lucky enough to grow up in a three-bedroom Council house. Why lucky? Because my (quite poor) parents could afford the rent; because it was a solidly-built house, without damp; because it had a garden where I could play; because it gave us all security. Almost all my school friends also lived in Council Houses. It was normal. More important, it was a crucial catalyst for my own social mobility.
All that has now gone, probably forever. In 1950 – when my family moved into its Council house – 168,000 local authority homes were built across the UK; 30 years later the figure was just 280. After the 1980 Housing Act, which gave Council Housing tenants the ‘Right to Buy’, around one million houses were sold into private hands over the next decade. According to one academic analysis, “after fifty years of virtually uninterrupted growth, the numbers of council houses began to fall, and have continued to do so ever since…Council housing has increasingly become a residual housing tenure, providing home for only the very poor, homeless and those with no alternative form of accommodation.” The Right to Buy enriched individuals, who were able to buy their Council house very cheaply – but it created a black hole in affordable, decent housing.
In England, according to the housing charity Shelter, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes, and there are more than 9 million renters in private rented accommodation; a third of those private rented homes fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard. There are socially responsible and caring landlords around – not least the Social Stock Exchange member Places for People, which reinvests profits back into its business, and owns or manages 140,000 homes in the UK – but in generalThe Spectator got it right in its latest issue: “Socio-economically, Britain is gradually reverting to the 19th century, where most people were tenants, living in properties owned by a small class of propertied landlords. The difference now is that it isn’t just the propertied who have the vote. When Sadiq Khan [the Labour politician who has just been elected Mayor of London] made the housing crisis a priority of his campaign, people listened – and voted for him.”
If we take London, where prices either to rent or buy are absurdly high, renting a one-bedroom flat today in the cheapest areas will probably set you back at least £12,000 a year. Against that, the before-tax starting salary of a nurse (surely one of the most socially important jobs) in London (including 20% inner London weighting) is £26,030. It’s hardly surprising that according to the Royal College of Nursing four out of 10 London nurses expect to have to relocate outside London by 2021 – pushed out by accommodation price inflation. A friend who is a paediatric consultant in a London hospital tells me that beds have already been closed because they just can’t get the nurses.
All too often journalists bandy around the word ‘crisis’ without much thought; but it’s the only word to describe the housing situation in the UK today. In 2007 the Labour government set a target for 240,000 homes to be built each and every year by 2016, but we are actually only building around 150,000. For a couple of decades after 1945 we built more than 300,000 new homes a year. On some estimates, by 2025 there will be a housing shortfall of 750,000 properties in England alone. Yet there are around 1 million empty properties in the UK, usually in such a state of dilapidation they are unfit for habitation. The State – both centrally and locally – has, for a variety of reasons (but mostly lack of/unwillingness to part with money) withdrawn from providing affordable housing, and does not lean on private landlords to behave ethically. We might have a national, government-backed housing policy: but for the life of me I can’t discern one.
The high cost and short supply of accommodation is now forcing different kinds of backlashes. Sadiq Khan’s election in London – quite astonishing when you consider the internal faction-fighting and welter of bad publicity surrounding the Labour Party – is one example.
A very different one came in the same week as London’s mayoral election. The pretty seaside resort of St Ives in Cornwall, where property prices have more than doubled since 2000 thanks to a surge in ‘second-home’ buyers, and the average house price is now roughly 18 times the average local income, more than 80% residents voted in a referendum to block planning permission for new housing projectsunless they were reserved for full-time residents. Whether this will mean more affordable homes get built for local residents is a moot point: but it shows just how fed-up people are becoming with being unable to get on the property ladder.
Demonstrations of popular unrest, whether in St Ives or London, are one thing. But protest votes don’t necessarily translate into solutions. There are initiatives, which get scant media attention, such as the recent vow by the European Investment Bank (EIB) to loan £1 billion over 30 years to build social (i.e. affordable) housing in the UK, which sum will be matched by the Housing Finance Corporation, a specialist housing lender. But this £2 billion will be enough to build 20,000 houses at around £100,000 each – a drop in the ocean; useful but hardly game-changing. Unless and until we have a government which prioritises housing as one of the biggest long-term social problems we face, we can expect more expressions of populist discontent.
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