This week, I led Labour’s first opposition day debate of the new parliament in which we called on the government to bring forward a comprehensive plan to tackle the urgent and growing housing crisis.
Meeting the demand for housing is one of the biggest challenges our country faces in the next decade. The debate about housing can often be dry, focusing on competing statistics of completions versus starts and other units of measurement. But the impact of this crisis on our society and on people is profound. To most people, a home is not a unit but a means to fulfil their aspiration. Indeed, buying a home of their own is not an end in itself. The real objective is to put down roots, have much greater security and belong to a community. But the housing crisis is frustrating those aspirations, particularly for the record number of young people in their twenties and thirties who are living at home with their parents. Many have lost hope of ever being able to benefit from the security of owning their own home.
While it is true that under successive governments there simply have not been enough homes built for decades, it is also the case that over the past five years, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level in peacetime since the 1920s. What is more, for all of David Cameron’s talk about the Tories being the party of home-ownership, the truth flies in the face of his rhetoric – home-ownership is now at a 30-year low. A record eleven million people rent from a private landlord. Many of whom either aspire to own and to have greater security and stability, or they are on a waiting list for a council house alongside 1.4 million other families. Most worryingly of all, homelessness and rough sleeping are both on the rise.
Yet the government’s proposals fall well short of this challenge. The two flagship schemes announced in the Queen’s speech – 200,000 starter homes with a 20 per cent discount and extending right to buy to housing association tenants – are riddled with unanswered questions. For instance, the average discount for each starter home is £43,000, yet the government has failed to explain how it will work or how it will be funded.
The Labour party wants to see as many people buy their own home as possible but the government’s right to buy plans have been criticised by housing experts, the CBI, those well-known socialist publications the Economist, Spectator, and the Telegraph, as well as Conservative members of parliament and peers. One peer described it as an ‘absurd attack from a Conservative government on the property rights of some of the most needed and respected charities in this country.’ The former head of the civil service and permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local government, Bob Kerslake, now a peer, has said the government should think again.
There are big unanswered questions about: how much the scheme will cost; how it will be paid for; how the homes sold will be replaced; the impact on housing associations ability to build; and legal questions about forcing independent charities to sell their assets. Ultimately, we will see what the government brings forward but the test for any housing policy must be whether it eases rather than deepens the housing crisis.
Overall, the government’s proposals are clearly not up to the scale of the challenge we face. There were no measures to help small builders, boost shared ownership or improve the security and stability for private renters – in fact there were was no mention of private renters in either the Conservative manifesto or the Queen’s speech at all. There was also no mention of homelessness or rough sleeping, despite the number of rough sleepers increasing by 55 per cent since 2010.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be pushing the government to put forward a comprehensive, long-term plan to tackle the housing crisis and help people fulfil their aspirations. If they want some inspiration, they could learn from Labour-run local authorities all over the country who have been leading the way in building homes and creating great places, as opposed to the Tory ministers who talk a good game but have ultimately failed to deliver.
Emma Reynolds MP is shadow secretary of state for communities and local government
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