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Housing at the heart of the manifestos
17 May 2017
The housing crisis is so daunting in scale, and possible solutions so politically fraught, that historically politicians of all parties have not dared truly tackle it. Policies have tended to tinker at the edges of the issue, and sometimes inadvertently entrench the gap, for instance, the government’s Lifetime ISA which hands £1,000 a year to would-be buyers – if, that is, they already have £4,000 of their own.
As is already well known, the real problem is supply. In 2016, the number of affordable homes built slumped to a 24-year low. There are renewed calls for 3 million new homes in a decade, a third of them commissioned by the public sector. Smarter homes would help too: not just for first-time but also ‘last-time’ buyers, with the kind of accessible, attractive smaller retirement units that could encourage older people otherwise reluctant to downsize, and which would also immediately free up millions of households back on to the property ladder.
There are more than a million people on housing waiting lists in England, while more than 6 million face tenure insecurity with no prospect of ever buying their own home. Parties have been alarmingly slow to address the needs of those not already firmly established on the ladder – though Ed Miliband certainly tried during his Labour leadership – but even the Conservatives are now paying lip service to at least some of them.
This bleak news is striking, but unsurprising. The reality may not match the rhetoric, but it is still encouraging that housing pledges are set to be the centrepieces of both the Labour and Conservative manifestos. Labour wants to build at least a million more homes over the next five years, with half of them council houses, as well as provide a charter of private tenants’ rights. Its pledge to link HS2 with other rail investments, such as Crossrail of the North, could also unlock thousands of new homes along its route. And Theresa May, in a foretaste of the pending Conservative manifesto, launched an audacious bid to woo Labour voters by putting plans for a new generation of council homes for the working classes at the heart of her programme for government.
This positivity is further strengthened by a batch of Select Committee reports released just before the election, which detailed useful markers for future housing policy. The underwhelming Housing White Paper will still be in play post general election, with the added benefit of additional time to beef it up before it returns to Parliament. And, with Gavin Barwell and John Healey currently in the Housing and Shadow Housing portfolios respectively, the sector has its two best advocates in years.
For years politicians have relied on merely slowing down the rate at which the housing crisis gets worse. The emerging cross-party consensus may at last alleviate this.
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