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Is there a housing crisis?

Architect and TV presenter George Clarke broadcast a brilliant programme earlier this week on Channel 4 ("George Clarke's council house scandal"). On the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Addison Act which arguably introduced modern council housing to the UK, he asked why there was so little new council housing in the UK, and drew a lot of attention to how other European countries continue to see it as a municipal government responsibility to house their people, and also publicized some of the distressing and crummy situations that people are forced into. He called for a target of 100,000 council homes to be built in the UK every year, and for the suspension of the right to buy.  He didn't call for a ban on people in public life being called "Greg Clarke", which I think would help his profile and cause even further.

The title of this post isn't meant to be flippant.  Something has clearly gone wrong (in the delivery of council/affordable and private housing), when:

  • everyone is waiting longer and longer to be able to save up a deposit for a house; 
  • the amount of affordable housing being started each year is arguably falling (depending on how you define when a home is actually "affordable"); 
  • we as a nation spend about £23 billion on housing benefit p.a (including billions to private landlords, and billions to subsidise the rents in affordable rented homes, set at just a marginal discount to market rents) but only about 20% as much on actually building new homes.

But again, can we genuinely say there is a housing "crisis", (which as a typical lawyer I would define as a harmful situation which everyone is required to immediately react to, focus on and fix, to the exclusion of all else), when:

  • we are spending less and less on building new affordable housing;
  • the role of housing minister has become (under both Labour and Conservative governments) a 1 year perch for loyal MPs on their way up to better roles, with proper budgets and powers;
  • existing home owners are led to believe that, once they have got on the ladder, they benefit from restricting the supply of new homes;
  • particular local communities consistently use the planning system to stymie new housing, in particular the big schemes such as garden villages that would actually make a big impact on housing numbers, and which could put in the infrastructure that you need to support social housing; 
  • we are refusing to slay (or just chop bits off) sacred cows such as the "Green Belt", the right to buy, or "best consideration". Why don't we release a huge swathe of public land, for no up front payment, provided that it is used for mixed tenure housing, including 50% social housing, and provided the government gets paid back for any roads and sewers that they have put in? Why don't we make sure that homes funded in this way don't all promptly get sold at a discount to their inhabitants?

Bluntly, do we get to call the situation a "crisis" if we just tut at it and then check our house price on Rightmove?

Arguably, there was a real housing crisis in 1919 (when returning soldiers had to be given "homes for heroes"). There was also a crisis from the 1940's to 1960's. Over 2 million homes were destroyed by bombing, and 2.5 million people were made homeless. That led to national government and councils rebuilding bomb sites, often into council estates, but also into schemes like the Barbican, or the London South Bank. We are lucky we are not in that situation today, but perhaps programmes like George Clarke's will make us think whether we should react to this as a crisis?