Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing.
Politicians don’t understand the housing crisis, and need stop rolling out hundreds of “piecemeal schemes” that prop up a broken system, a panel of experts has said.
Speaking at The Huffington Post UK’s ‘Tenant Nation’ roundtable debate, the experts claimed that though politicians were aware of the housing crisis, they weren’t even coming close to addressing it.
In fact, this government has created too many initiatives on housing, and most have "made no difference", the panel claimed.
Panelists including the head of the National Landlords Association, Richard Lambert; and Daisy-May Hudson, a VICE producer who became homeless when her family’s landlord evicted them after 13 years, said some politicians simply didn't understand housing, and had blundered through government with schemes that were pointless, poorly researched or even damaging.
MP and London Mayoral hopeful David Lammy told HuffPost UK that both Labour and the Conservatives were relying too much on the private sector to build houses - when it is evident that the private sector doesn't deliver.
Policies like the current government's Help To Buy ISA, and General Election manifesto pledges like the Tories' extension of Right To Buy, have been slammed by housing campaigners as measures that deflect from the desperate need to build more homes, which they say would lower house prices and address the shortage of council housing.
David Orr, the CEO of the National Housing Federation which is campaigning for more homes desperately need to be built in Britain, said: “If we are to do anything about this we have to get rid of the acres and acres and acres of initiatives that come from government, and turn this into a proper thoughtful discussion about a long-term housing strategy.
In the course of the government, Orr claimed, there have been more than 200 different housing initiatives announced, and over 500 announcements about housing and planning more generally. Yet, he claimed, “We are still building fewer that half of the homes that we need, so they have made no difference.”
Richard Lambert, the head of the National Landlords Association, said that politicians simply didn’t understand the interrelationship between the different housing sectors. The group claimed that a lack of council homes was pushing more people into homelessness and into the private rental sector… “I think politicians are increasingly aware of the housing crisis but I don’t actually think they understand it, and that’s because they don’t view housing holistically.
The panel agreed that the government had been taking the wrong approach
“The whole debate seems to be very much around individual sectors: owner occupation, the private rented sector, social housing, they don’t really appreciate that it’s one big whole and they all live together. I’ve only ever heard one politician talk about that in my 30 years around this.
“I think it’s far too easy to fall into the assumptions and the stereotypes and not really look at actually what is happening, and trying to base policy responses on the reality rather than what you think is there.”
The panel, which also included Martha Mackenzie from housing charity Shelter, urged politicians to make a long-term plan beyond superficial, vote-winning gestures.
One of the reasons government has failed to take major action could be a general fatigue over the decade-old housing crisis, which has gone on for so long that people have accepted it, said Daisy-May Hudson.
“It’s just become part of the media furniture, and I think it’s really time that politicians start engaging with it, but unfortunately too many people are making money out of the housing crisis and the way that it is at the moment, so it’s going to take a big revolutionary change to do something about it.”
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The lack of political vision is because politicians either don’t understand the enormity of the housing crisis, said Lambert: “I think it's too big, it's too complicated, they don't understand the whole of housing effectively, they still tend to view it very much in the individual sectors. Very few people actually understand how individual sectors impact on each other.”
“I think a lot of politicians are landlords,” Hudson added. “I think there's also a lot if you think about how many people bought their homes before we were in the housing crisis, they are currently enjoying a huge profit on their property, so for a government to take dramatic change to cool those prices or to increase the supply which would then ultimate affect the price of the housing is going to take a very revolutionary plan.”
Lambert said the fact that governments only sit for several years made a generation-long strategy difficult to put in place: "I think the problem politically is you're only ever looking five years ahead, so people tend to grasp what can I do, now, that will do something in the short term, that will get the headlines, that will have some impact and that will not work against me in the next election."
Politicians: do they get it?
Mackenzie called for government measures to end the instability of short-term private rental contracts, and build more homes that more people can afford to buy. “That will require political leadership,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of piecemeal schemes over the course of the last parliament and we need politicians to be prioritising this, getting started from go and really making it a big issue in the next election.”
Orr said that the solutions offered by politicians needed to look at the bigger picture: “I think that the fundamental problem is that we have a housing crisis in every single part of the housing economy and in every single part of the country, although it looks different in difference places. So in overheated housing markets like London and the south east, it absolutely is one that we don’t have enough homes.
"So many of the arguments that we get into are about rationing the homes that we do have, rather than the much more fundamental debate about how do we make sure we get enough homes.”
David Cameron has said he will make the "dream of home ownership a reality" and and Ed Miliband saying Labour would do the same two days ago - yet research from Shelter reveals that 80% of housing in England is too expensive for the average first-time buyer family to purchase.
Lambert said that if the government thinks that everyone should be able to own their own home, it needs to put policies in place to actually make that happen, “but that's quite a thing to achieve”.
But he added that it wasn't very important whether people rented or owned their home: “The crucial thing is we need the homes, it doesn't really matter, the tenure is less important, it's more about getting the homes we need for people. That's been the consistent failure over the last 30 years.”
Hudson said that the Help to Buy ISA was a measure that would make no difference to high house prices, and appeared to be helping a few people succeed within a deeply flawed system, rather than challenging the system itself. “I think with issues all across the political and social landscape we're always talking about fighting fires and how we're going to think about things on the back end, but I think there's not enough thought about how the prices got to that level in the first place, and then how we bring it back down, because homes shouldn't cost £500,000.”
Building more housing was the best way to lower house prices and help those with housing issues, the group agreed, but Lambert added: “The radical solution is to actually cap the price of housing, but no government is ever going to do that because they are going to turn 75% of the electorate [who own homes] against them.”
The coalition's many announcements hide the fact that it has ultimately drained money from new house building, Orr claimed: “They've come up with what they call financial instruments, things that have made a little bit of difference on the margins, but the cut, in the 2010 comprehensive spending review they cut capital investment in new supply by two thirds, the single biggest proportional cut, anywhere in the entire spending review."
Government intervention in housing has tailed off in the last two decades, Mackenzie from Shelter said: "We need the government to get involved, we need the stimulus there, we need the policies and we need the upfront investment in genuinely social affordable homes and that is the only way we're going to sort the housing crisis and it has to start as soon as possible."
David said: “People say that there's no way we can end the housing crisis, well yes there is, it's very simple, it's very straightforward, we build the homes. There's loads of land. People say oh there's no land - rubbish, we've got loads of land. People say there's no money, but there are institutionally out there with billions, even tens of billions of pounds that they would like to be investing in house building, and long term rental housing, if we could get the offer for that right."
The discussion led to a set of clear areas for the next government to urgently address, from seven key discussion points:
- The need to rapidly accelerate Britain’s house building – both for private renting and social housing
- More funding for local councils to enforce regulations on landlords
- Better awareness and education for people who become landlords
- A strategy for the whole housing market – not just piecemeal offers
- More stability for vulnerable people in the private rented sector
As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions
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