Latest figures show the government's efforts to increase affordable housing for what they are – little more than linguistic skulduggery

Quite why this fundamental social question has dropped so far down the Conservatives’ list of priorities is a matter of some bafflement

Friday 28 December 2018 20:40
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Only a fraction of the affordable homes which are set to be built by 2022 will be rented at the lowest possible cost
Only a fraction of the affordable homes which are set to be built by 2022 will be rented at the lowest possible cost

Of the many of predictions made by politicians, economists and assorted pundits over the effect of Brexit on the fortunes of the United Kingdom, only one can be said to be proved true beyond doubt: the immense distraction caused by unlocking the relationship between the UK and the EU, which has already become utterly disabling. It is blinding the government to the urgency of other domestic issues and occupying ministers so fully that there is no time to address them.

Perhaps the most significant of these lost causes is the housing crisis. It’s a problem so acute that most ordinary citizens living in urban areas can visibly see its effects on their pavements, church gardens and shop doorways. The number of people homeless this Christmas has reached a record high in recent years: more than 170,000 families are experiencing true destitution, with rough sleeper numbers doubling in just five years.

As The Independent reported just days ago, the unfortunate souls at the sharp end of this crisis woke up on Christmas Day in cars, tents or on trains or buses because they have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, large numbers of children are being brought up in temporary accommodation with all the associated emotional and practical instability that brings.

These are the most troubling aspects of a much broader problem that is touching most households in some form, whether they are trapped in overpriced and poor-quality private-rented housing or entering retirement unable to find a suitable, adapted home to downsize into for later life.

Now the government has been forced to admit in parliament that only a fraction of the 250,000 affordable homes which are set to be built by 2022 will be rented out as social housing at the lowest possible rent. Just 12,500, the equivalent to 2,500 new homes a year, will serve that purpose. The rest will be rented for a sum much closer to market rate, often on shorter-term contracts, or even sold off to those on modest incomes who can nevertheless stretch to buy a home of their own.

Given the depth of the crisis in the property market, what is “affordable” about that? And yet that is how the government presents its housebuilding programme when communicating it to ordinary voters.

This linguistic skulduggery should be an embarrassment to our prime minister. It is not possible for the government to attempt to simply talk its way out of a problem of this size.

Quite why this fundamental social question – one might convincingly argue that decent housing is a human right, especially in an advanced western economy – has dropped so far down the Conservatives’ list of priorities is a matter of some bafflement.

To take an optimistic view, these latest figures may represent a nadir. A further £2bn for social housing was announced by Theresa May herself at a conference of housing association leaders in September. It’s rare for a prime minister to speak at such an event – perhaps a sign that she at least recognises the magnitude of the situation.

In his October Budget the chancellor Philip Hammond gave councils the right to borrow money from banks to build new homes – a freedom they had been lobbying for since David Cameron came to power in 2010. Their efforts will likely make a significant difference to the number of social homes able to be built in the next two decades.

Nevertheless there is whiff of political tactics about this: if you outsource your solution to a problem, you can also outsource the blame if it doesn’t work. After all, it is local authorities that fielded much of the criticism for cuts to local public services despite the chokehold the Westminster government put on their finances.

Simply finding ways to raise more money (from the public purse and on the money markets) may not, in itself, be enough to fix the problem. There will inevitably be some resistance from local authorities to borrow to build if those new properties will later be sold off to tenants at a loss-making discount under the Right to Buy. Even in the current atmosphere of almost desperation for cash, £817m for housing went unspent by local authorities and was returned to the Treasury last year. A committee of MPs has asked ministers to explain why such a thing would, and could, happen.

So welcome though the prime minister’s commitments on new spending are, a more strategic approach is required to fully understand and meet the nation’s changing housing needs. Yet thanks to Brexit there is scarce unspent time to dedicate to it. The government’s ambition to build one million new homes by 2020 could be the first quantifiable domestic casualty of Brexit. Sadly, that fact might only increase the chances of a second Leave vote in another referendum on the terms of our departure from the EU.

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