In recent years, the debate around housing has increasingly moved up the political agenda. Some have argued that successive governments, including the Labour administration, have been slow to recognise the importance of public investment in housing as a central tool for tackling inequality, disadvantage and the resentments that can brew when the poorest compete for a limited supply of social housing, often in ethnically diverse areas.
Rising house prices, combined with the decline in the stock of social housing (precipitated by policies such as ‘right to buy’ in the 1980s), have placed great strain on local authorities with large numbers of people unable to afford to purchase their own homes or on housing waiting lists. Rising house prices have for the first time left large numbers of middle-class families and first-time buyers on good incomes priced out of the housing market. The ratio of house prices to earnings for first-time buyers in Britain is approximately 8.25 (measured by the ratio of bottom quartile house prices to bottom quartile earnings). Asset inequality in Britain has been on the increase and home ownership is critical to this, contributing to the largest wealth gap in 40 years according a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.
This increasingly shared experience of not being able to buy your own property or to access social housing has the capacity to unite campaigners to get results, as was demonstrated by the way housing became one of the key issues debated during the Labour deputy leadership contest. In particular the experiences, highlighted by candidates such as Jon Cruddas, point to the dangers of competition for limited social housing and the capacity of far right groups to exploit this issue. Many in poor white communities feel increasingly resentful, powerless, left behind and locked in poverty. Such frustrations can then be channelled at minority groups – even if they are private homeowners rather than recipients of social housing. More generally, there is increasing evidence of social segregation in London and the south-east, with middle-class families leaving due to the lack of affordable family-sized homes. If this trend continues, London increasingly risks becoming a city occupied by the very rich and the very poor.
In areas such as Tower Hamlets, housing overcrowding continues to blight people’s life chances. According to the 2001 Census, it is the second most overcrowded borough in the country. It has one of the UK’s highest levels of child poverty, with housing costs and unemployment being key drivers. The shortage of good quality, family homes is affecting life chances, contributing to health inequalities and affecting childrens’ education. There are stories of children having to take turns to do their homework and sharing one bedroom with three or four people in small, overcrowded flats.
This is why the prime minister’s commitment to create a ‘property-owning democracy’, backed by an announcement in the green paper to build three million more homes by 2020, is a radical and important step towards ensuring we are not held back as a nation by the lack of social and affording housing. In one of the world’s richest nations, it would be a scandal to see talent wasted because children do not have decent homes to live in. We must use this great opportunity to not only ensure that the housing shortage is addressed, but also that house building is focused around creating socially and ethnically integrated communities where people can create strong social ties and family networks.
The need to go beyond the so-called ‘bricks and mortar’ approach presents a major challenge for the government, local authorities and housing associations. There has been much talk of doing this in the past, but with few seriously good examples. New developments must ensure there are good youth facilities and play spaces for young people which go beyond the usual sops to appease local people from property developers. Other provisions such as health centres, job readiness and job brokerage programmes in close proximity are crucial if we are to avoid creating yet more sink estates.
Housing is likely to continue to be a key flashpoint for Labour’s traditional communities, and ought to be at the heart of a Labour manifesto which seeks to improve the life chances of the poorest in our society. Ignoring the mounting need for higher quality, affordable and socially cohesive housing will risk alienating the very supporters Labour needs to win the next election.
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