Anna Turley: Waiting lists for social housing are getting longer. It's time to act

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Even before this current economic crisis, social housing was in desperate need of radical and comprehensive reform. Local authorities were already facing a severe and chronic shortage of homes. The number of households nationally has been increasing at more than 200,000 a year, yet the number of homes being built has been in decline since the 1960s.

Today, social housing waiting lists continue to grow. There are nine million social renters, and waiting lists have grown by 57 per cent over the past five years, to 4.5 million people (1.8 million households). Recent reports have predicted that the recession will send waiting lists rocketing further as a growing number of homes are repossessed, and fewer people are able to get mortgages to buy private homes. The National Housing Federation expects the total number waiting for accommodation to reach a new high of about two million households by 2011.

Not only must we meet this need, but the current shortage of supply means council homes are available only to those most in need. Council housing has become the "tenure of last resort". We cannot afford, financially or morally, to perpetuate a system where housing stifles rather than encourages aspiration and happiness.

Social tenants are the least happy with their accommodation, compared with those in any other tenure, and far more likely to suffer from problems such as crime, poor health, worklessness and poor living conditions.

Yet construction is slowing, with the number of houses registered with the National House-Building Council falling by 56 per cent between September 2007 and September 2008. Limited availability of finance, a tightening of mortgage markets and increasing demands on developers have all contributed to this. Increased public subsidy for the social housing element may be required to ensure private developers continue some developments.

We are heading towards a crisis of housing availability unless we ensure that all possible steps are taken to start looking beyond the immediate downturn and that the potential for local strategic leadership in housing is harnessed now.

Anna Turley is the deputy director of the New Local Government Network. This is an extract from her report, Council Housing – Back To The Future?