Fixing the housing crisis

If you work in the bubble of UK housing you will be familiar with the Homes for Britain campaign. If not, it’s highly likely you’ve never heard of it.

Homes for Britain was set up in 2014 and tried to corral a mixed bag of very different organisations, covering local government, housing associations, private landlords and house builders, into a broad-based campaign, with a single, vague demand: for politicians of all parties to end the housing crisis within a generation.

Last March the campaign held a pre-election rally in Westminster Hall with a range of high-profile speakers, from Owen Jones and Ken Loach to Grant Shapps and Nigel Farage (apparently he’d misheard it as the “Homes for Britons” campaign).

That perhaps give a flavour of its ‘all things to all people’ approach.

So how is the campaign going? Some credulous people who work in housing seem to believe it’s been a roaring success with housing now high up the political agenda, but whether Homes for Britain played any part in that is highly debatable, particularly as the campaign has been more or less invisible since last May.

But even before the election, the campaign had started to fracture. Generation Rent, the campaign for young renters, left last April citing ‘weak’ demands and its failure to engage with the electorate.

Then in September, the campaign’s lead member, the National Housing Federation, announced a voluntary right to buy deal with the government that would be funded by the forced sale of council homes. It turned out the NHF had failed to consult with another Homes for Britain partner – the Local Government Association (LGA). Tom Copley, a senior GLA councillor accused the NHF of “collaborating” with the government in a “shady deal”.

More recently, the Local Government Association has tried to divert attention from the planning system by pinning the blame for poor housing outputs on land banking by another Homes for Britain partner – the house builders.

The LGA published a report suggesting that 475,647 plots in England had been given planning permission but had not been built, and that developers were taking longer to build out their sites than in the past. “These figures conclusively prove that the planning system is not a barrier to house building…” said an LGA spokesman.

The Home Builders Federation hit back, saying that the vast majority of the homes identified by the LGA, “…are either on sites where work has already started, or where there is not a fully ‘implementable’ permission and where it is not legal for builders to commence construction.”

Duncan Stott of the Priced Out campaign pointed out that, according to the LGA figures, he lived in a flat that did not exist . “I am writing this article from a flat that was finished 18 months ago; but another part of the development is still being built.

According to these figures, I live in an unbuilt home.” It appears that the LGA had considered a scheme unfinished until the very last home was completed, even though sites can sometimes take years to build out. Stott says that it would be equally valid to attack local councils, often under pressure from NIMBY constituents, for failing to set ambitious housing targets.

And so the bickering goes on. Perhaps Homes for Britain was naïve in trying to unite such a disparate group of organisations and to seek unity behind such a vague and objectively meaningless slogan. (What does ending the housing crisis mean in reality? What is a generation?)

Meanwhile, the government, taking advantage of this level of disarray among its potential critics, is about to enact a Housing Bill that will significantly worsen the housing prospects for millions of people. It includes “Pay to Stay” and the end of secure tenancies for council tenants, the right to buy for housing association tenants, the definition of social housing being widened to include properties selling for up to £450,000, affordable homes on planning-gain sites being replaced with unaffordable starter homes, and councils being forced to sell off their most valuable stock without compensation.

Most reliable commentators predict that the housing crisis will get worse, not better. This is not a very good outcome for a campaign that allegedly cost almost a million pounds. Meanwhile the campaign for social housing (SHOUT), which I support, believes the only way to address the housing crisis, within a generation or any other timescale, is for a return to public investment in genuinely affordable social housing, something that the Homes for Britain campaign barely mentioned.

 

(This opinion piece first appeared on the 24 Dash website)

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