Leading article: Only bold measures will stop a housing shortage turning into a crisis

Behind the emotion, the fact is that Britain does not have enough suitable homes

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With evidence of a housing crisis mounting on an almost daily basis, Britain's chronic lack of affordable, good-quality homes is threatening to become a defining issue for this government and the next.

The latest assessment of the situation, reported in this newspaper today, makes grim reading. Not only are the conditions in the UK among the worst in Western Europe, but poor housing is adding an extra £7bn to the nation's annual bills, thanks to the extra burden on social services, the NHS and the education system.

The problem is far from new. Successive governments over three decades have presided over a national housing policy which has been striking for its lack of coherence. But it is only now – as long-unaddressed concerns from ballooning property prices to stalemate debates about planning laws come together – that the storm is threatening to break. Worryingly, there is little sign that politicians of any party have comprehensive answers.

Tempers are already fraying. Recent debates about squatting have seen, on one side, the Government mooting plans to criminalise the offence of taking over someone else's empty home; while, on the other, a judge maintains squatters perform a service to society by putting empty properties back into use.

Then there is the fracas over planning, with the National Trust warning that the Government's proposed reforms are "fundamentally wrong", while the relevant minister, Greg Clark, branded the charity's intervention as "nihilistic selfishness".

Behind the emotion is the fact that Britain does not have enough suitable homes. The population is rising, people are living longer, divorces are splitting existing households, and yet house-building has slumped to its lowest level for 90 years. Prices have rocketed, leaving an entire generation of young people facing the prospect of never being able to buy their own home.

With buyers priced out of the market, pressure grows in the rented sector, pushing up rents and creating opportunities for unscrupulous landlords. More than a million people already live in sub-standard privately rented accommodation, and there is disturbing evidence that the problem is spreading, particularly in London.

In tackling the housing crisis, there is a long list of options which warrant examination. The Pro-Housing Alliance, a pressure group, suggests reining back proposed cuts to housing benefit, improving the business environment for house-builders, reforming land taxation, or using the Big Society Bank to promote community land trusts to buy the land for low-cost homes. As the debate over planning reforms becomes increasingly incendiary, the Government also needs to look more intelligently at the use of the Green Belt in its forthcoming planning reforms.

But it is not just about building new property, it is also about making better use of what we have. There are an estimated 300,000 homes in the UK that have been empty for longer than six months, many of them currently too run-down to be used.

The shortage in Britain's housing stock needs to be addressed with bold and innovative thinking. And we need it quickly.

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