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Through 100 Days, Government Housing Policy Veers Between 'Fiddling While the UK Burns' to the Outright Disastrous

10/08/2015 16:54 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

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To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Given the huge policy shifts that the Conservatives committed to in their manifesto on housing, it comes as no surprise that they have moved very quickly in a wide range of areas, from social housing and benefits to the private rented sector and housebuilding.

Unfortunately, much of their output ranges between policies that could be termed 'fiddling while the UK burns' through to the outright disastrous. It seems that the government assumes that any action they take on housing would inevitably be positive, given the scale of the crisis. Instead we have a policy platform that will exacerbate many of the existing problems we face.

Take social housing. The extension of Right-to-Buy to social landlords is indefensible given the lack of affordable homes across the country, but its funding mechanism which would see councils sell off their most valuable properties will accelerate social cleansing in expensive areas and limit new building from social landlords when faced with a more uncertain financial climate.

We can welcome the year-on-year 1% reduction in social rents that have been announced, but question how greater building will take place without significant investment, and ask why reducing rents in the private rented sector is not a priority too.

Welfare reform will have a profound effect on the most vulnerable tenants in our society. Freezing LHA rates (housing benefit for private renters) will mean that ever more claimants and low-income workers will find it hard to access housing; the new benefit cap will also mean that families on benefits with three or more children will have nowhere affordable to live anywhere in London and the South East.

Ending housing benefit for 18-21 year olds could have profound affects for very young and vulnerable tenants, however many exceptions are ultimately brought to bear on it. Working families will also see reductions in their housing benefit alongside the freeze on LHA, as the Family Premium is removed.

Given this grim picture, it may be said that private renters have got off lightly, because the government has not focused its policy reforms on this sector. However, given that private renting is deeply unaffordable and insecure with the worst conditions of any tenure, the status quo leaves no space for rejoicing.

One positive move from the government came through the Budget, where reforms of tax breaks for landlords were announced. Reducing the amount of tax that can be offset against mortgage interest payments should dampen buy-to-let speculation, helping to hold down house prices and giving first-time buyers a chance to get a mortgage.

The removal of the 'wear and tear' allowance will mean that landlords can only make tax claims against actual work done, which should in some cases see conditions improve. But these remain relatively minor policies.

Of course, George Osborne will point to a commitment to 275,000 affordable homes by the end of the parliament as a major part of his housing offer. If these homes are genuinely affordable, it will be a triumph. But the fear is how affordability might be defined, whether there will be any more public investment and if the use of publicly-owned land will prioritise social housing and homes that are permanently affordable.

So what needs to be done? Essentially the housing market needs change through huge state investment, much greater regulation of the private rented sector and tax and planning reforms that will level out rising house prices and discourage speculation in property.

At the moment this seems distant but there will be opportunities. Generation Rent will be pushing for landlord licensing and tougher action on conditions to be in included in the autumn Housing Bill and there will be other policy points of intervention. We'll also be pushing the more radical London Mayoral manifestos - which include rent control, longer tenancies and a crackdown on rogue landlords - to show that intervention in the housing market is necessary.

Ultimately though, private renters and housing activists have to become a much louder and more-organised voice, taking action in all parts of the country and across generations. It is when we have that active social base that the housing reforms that might seem implausible now will finally be realised.

Seb Klier is policy manager at Generation Rent

Generation Rent has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £60,000 to keep the organisation campaigning for improvements to private renting. For more information, or to donate, click here

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