Reflections on the housing crisis

Written by Paul Griseri, Fareham and Gosport Green Party

Weston-tower-blocksHousing has been in the news across the country recently in one form or another. Whether it be the bedroom tax, the housing and planning bill, right to buy, poor living conditions, or building yet more homes on land which is unsuitable. In this article I look through a few of these issues, and reflect on what they mean after the release of a report by the committees and local government committee today.

Recent court judgements have thrown into question yet again the long term future of the government’s bedroom tax – or, if we feel disposed to give it the sanitised euphemism it officially goes by, the under-occupancy penalty.  In the Rutherford judgement reported recently in many papers, a judge ruled that imposing the penalty on a grandparent of a disabled teenager violates the latter’s rights.  Unsurprisingly the Cameron gang are choosing to appeal against this. And they also plan to appeal against the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that women at risk of domestic violence can have a ‘panic room’ in their homes to afford them a degree of safety.  One report suggests that the government will spend more on this appeal than if they were to comply with the ruling – so much for fiscal responsibility.

But however harsh and unfair this policy is in its current format and implementation, there are real issues relating to the pressure on social housing. It would be irresponsible to simply oppose this cruel piece of legislation without thinking about the underlying problems of under-occupation. This is where tenants of social housing whose circumstances change nevertheless remain in the same property, often with vacant rooms (most obviously when a family occupies a property and the children grow up and move away to live independently, but the parents remain in the now under-utilised home).

The Housing and Planning Bill currently going through Parliament will, however, make matters much worse.  The extension of right to buy to housing associations will almost certainly lead to more affordable properties being sold off, with the result that fewer smaller properties will be available for those hit by the bedroom tax.   The so-called ‘pay to stay’ trap, where residents of social housing with an income of over £30,000 will have to pay market rents, will squeeze middle income families already struggling with pay freezes or very low increases, student loans, of the loss of benefits such as tax credits.

One factor in the general housing crisis is the phenomenon of foreign investors buying up property solely as investment, often leaving them unoccupied, and in the meantime driving up house prices – particularly in London but in other metropolitan centres as well.  However, the current bill ignores this phenomenon, instead targeting void local authority properties.  It is rare for a council to deliberately hold empty property, and this is usually one of the key performance indicators against which they are judged and is thus a focus of their attention. However, many private landowners do hold vacant properties and land, as in some circumstances they can make more profit from holding a property to sell later, than by spending money developing it.

It might be argued that the UK’s open borders policy contributes to the pressure on housing, by allowing ever more people to come and live in Britain, without a corresponding increase in the supply of housing.  But whilst there is a net inflow of population to the UK, there are substantial numbers who leave Britain to work abroad in Europe and elsewhere, so the overall effect is not the most influential element in the housing crisis.

Lack of supply and lack of flexibility within suitable housing stock is the bigger issue, which reflects a general lack of investment in local communities, which in turn places pressure on social housing, as areas with poor infrastructure tend to be less well maintained by local authorities and therefore properties in such areas become hard-to let.  There has been little investment in building new homes, partially because such funds as have been available have been diverted to improving existing properties under the last Labour Government’s Decent Homes initiative.

Whilst in general Hampshire has relatively low levels of homelessness, this is variable, with Portsmouth and to a lesser extent Gosport having significantly higher needs than the more rural surrounding areas.  The several housing initiatives and schemes that have been mooted for the southern Hampshire area have been poorly thought through, with little regard to the general environmental impact.  In the meantime, the London effect – the influence of the capital’s housing bubble on the south-east – will continue to exacerbate the crisis, inflating prices for first time and lower income buyers, making ‘affordable’ homes unaffordable, and pushing ‘market’ rents beyond what the market can sustain.

There is no simple answer to this country’s housing crisis, but this governments agenda of right to buy, bedroom tax, and irresponsible building is most certainly not it.

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