I’ve been involved with housing for over 40 years and I have yet to see a government that is properly and deeply committed to solving a worsening housing crisis.
When I started work in the early 1970s one of my jobs was to escort a government inspector [and yes – he wore a bowler hat!] around some rotten, damp terraced housing in the centre of town while he visited each house for about five minutes. He confirmed the clearance order and those houses were dropped and new council homes built in their place.
It seems that no-nonsense, council-knows-best attitude has been lost in the intervening years and simple solutions to difficult problems no longer hold sway. Although that may well be a good thing it seems that in the process we have lost the much stronger consensus that we needed many more new quality homes.
I hear stories on a daily basis of individuals and families who are struggling to find or afford accommodation that meets their needs. Our tax and benefit system goes nowhere near helping to solve the housing crisis, which is getting worse every year. We know through the National Housing Federation’s Homes for Britain campaign before the election that we need to build something like 250,000 new homes a year over the next five years if we are going to get anyway near solving the crisis. Our tax system provides limited incentives, positive or negative, beyond a regular vote-catching tinkering with stamp duty rates, to encourage the building of new homes.
We need a much more interventionist approach by government at both local and national level. Greater Manchester, where I work and live, needs 10,000 new homes a year. Only about 3,500 were built last year although there is planning permission for over 40,000 new homes. A land tax system that charged owners where permissions are unused could be one of the pushes that would get developers into gear.
Public agencies own huge amounts of land and year after year ministers bleat that this should be made available for development but little happens because Whitehall departments resist the pressure. A stronger lead is needed to get land released for building.
The planning process itself is far too cumbersome and costly, and far too embedded in local political processes. Yes, local people should have a say, but this is far too often linked to concerns about precious house values rather than real environmental or infrastructure issues. There should be a presumption in favour of new homes – not, as now, a battle royal every time a developer appears.
More new homes will have the twin effect of helping to solve the numbers problem and in turn will assist in slowing what seems the inexorable rise in prices – either to buy or to rent – and so improving affordability.
Ian Munro is chief executive of New Charter Housing Group
Photo: Ian Munro selling Big Issue North during this year’s Big Sell in Manchester (Jason Lock)