Leading article: The houses we need – now

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The Independent Online

In a time of stalled growth, scarce finance and limited confidence, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of new houses being built has dropped to the lowest level for a century. But it is no less alarming for that.

The strains of Britain's inadequate housing stock are already apparent: social housing is insufficient and too often of poor quality; both rents and unscrupulous landlordism are on the rise; and house prices are far out of kilter with earnings. Such problems are only going to get worse. With building sclerotic and demand steadily increasing, Britain needs as many as 250,000 new homes annually for the next 15 years at least – compared with the woeful 120,000 built in the last 12 months. If things continue as they are, the UK will be 750,000 homes short by 2025, according to some estimates. Meanwhile, the relevant government department's capital budget is being slashed by nearly three-quarters, taking its investment in affordable housing down by anything up to two-thirds.

In fairness, the Government has not entirely buried its head in the sand. A £900m local authority scheme and tweaks to social housing rental rules are designed to encourage building, while it is hoped that much-vaunted (and highly controversial) changes to the planning system will fill the space left by abolishing regional house-building targets.

But even taken together, such measures barely scratch the surface. And there is no shortage of options, from re-prioritising capital spending, to time-limiting planning permission to stopping building companies hoarding land, to freeing up suitable sites owned by the public sector. More radical proposals include attracting investment from pension funds or expanding the role of the Big Society Bank.

Above anything, Britain needs a coherent strategy. So far, the Government's response to the burgeoning crisis has been wholly inadequate. It is not acceptable simply to point to the pinched public purse. Ensuring citizens' basic needs are met is one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. That a country as rich as Britain cannot house its people decently is a disgrace.