Everyone should have the right to decent housing that meets their needs and is truly affordable, writes Steve Murphy
Without good-quality housing, a person’s life chances are dramatically reduced. People who are brought up in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation are more likely to suffer poor health, go to prison and have lower educational attainment.
Given those stark facts, it is simply appalling that in the 21st century there are officially over 1.7 million people on housing waiting lists in England alone, and that according to Shelter there are 41,000 households that are officially homeless.
People’s life chances are being crushed because, as a country, we are failing to put a roof over their heads.
The simple fact of the matter is the housing crisis is getting worse. This is directly a result of the policies of the Conservative-led government.
Soon after taking office in 2010 the government announced that it was cutting the funding of new social housing by over 60 per cent. This was at a time when new-build council and social housing was simply not meeting demand.
That disastrous policy was followed up by the decision to resurrect the right to buy in 2012, which the government did by increasing discounts to £75,000 (£100,000 in London).
Since then 22,900 council homes have been sold — a huge reduction in a vital and already scarce resource.
The government had promised that the sale of council housing would generate replacement properties on a one-for-one basis. A recent freedom of information request has proved that nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact since 2012 construction has begun on only 4,500 replacement homes.
Of the £1.54 billion generated through right to buy sales, just £588.3m was spent on new and replacement homes while £358m disappeared directly into government coffers.
Thankfully, while governments in Scotland and Wales are not building enough homes to meet housing need they do at least understand the toxic nature of right to buy. The scheme will end in Scotland on August 1 2016 and the Welsh government recently announced that they are consulting on scrapping the scheme.
It is of course not just the resurrection of right to buy which is increasing housing misery. The government’s policies have also targeted existing tenants. The most obvious and most wicked example is the bedroom tax, where tenants on housing benefit are forced to pay up to 25 per cent of their rent if they are considered to be overoccupying.
The policy would be brutal if it was simply forcing tenants to move to smaller properties. The bedroom tax is far more sinister, because there simply aren’t anything like the number of smaller properties needed for tenants to downsize. It has plunged thousands of tenants already on the breadline into financial misery.
The bedroom tax is closely allied with the benefits cap, which limits how much benefit any family receives. The cap is currently set at £26,000 per annum for families and the Conservatives propose that this will be further reduced to £23,000.
By far the biggest component of benefits bill is housing benefit. In particular families trapped in private-sector rented accommodation receive high amounts of housing benefit.
The cap is therefore a form of financial cleansing — it means the poorest in society are effectively barred from living in the richest areas. Most typically families on benefits can no longer live in central London and are being forced to move either to the outskirts of the capital or further afield.
Last week there was controversy at how the Conservative flagship authority of Wandsworth was buying properties as far away as Sandwell in the West Midlands to remove local homeless families from their housing lists.
The truth is that for 30 years successive governments have failed with their housing policies.
In future housing policy needs to be built on the principle of ensuring that everyone has decent housing that meets their needs and is truly affordable.
To meet that aim then, it is essential that we build a far higher number of new council homes.
Credit should be given to the councils, the majority of them Labour, that are building new council housing. However councils’ good intentions are being massively constrained by a chronic lack of resources and policies that are rigged against them.
This can only be tackled by central government having a vision and determination to fund councils to build more homes. Local authorities that are reluctant to build homes to meet local needs must be forced to so.
Councils, which are at the forefront of understanding the needs of local people, must be given both the impetus and the wherewithal to build for a better future.
The alternative of allowing the existing failed policies to continue will condemn ever more families to the misery of overcrowded poor housing.
Steve Murphy is general secretary of construction union Ucatt