It was three weeks ago that I wrote to the Secretary of State, with the support of a group of cross-party MPs, condemning his Department’s failure to release the Social Housing Green Paper before the summer recess. James Brokenshire made a promise in his Grenfell Tower statement and he broke it. What an abdication of duty by this Conservative Government. Now, having seen the announced measures, I have not changed my mind.
With over a million households on social housing waiting lists, including more than 123,000 homeless children living in temporary accommodation, and thousands of unaccounted rough sleepers, it becomes increasingly apparent that the government’s failure to act is a dereliction of duty. England’s chronic lack of social housing has now reached the lowest point since records began. Government statistics show that where nearly 40,000 social homes for rent were built in 2010-11, this has fallen to just 5,380 in 2016-17.
We have recently received two announcements from the Tories regarding their plans to tackle the housing crisis: the Rough Sleeping Strategy and the Social Housing Green Paper. Disappointingly, both announcements have come without a penny in new funding. Of course, the answer is not to blindly throw money at problems, but if we are to truly solve the housing crisis, the Government must stop tinkering at the edges. It must instead put forward an ambitious programme to deliver the housing this country needs, not least by taking committing to greater investment and taking a leading role in direct commissioning where the market fails to deliver on building social housing.
Social housing is a crucial element of the mixed housing model. Vince Cable, in a recent speech outlining the Liberal Democrat vision for housing, said: “to improve housing supply, we must be flexible and pragmatic, not ideological and dogmatic”. As a Liberal Democrat, I strongly believe in social housing as a force for social good. Social homes for rent are a way to rebuild the contract between the state and the individual, and give the individual the security to flourish. The fundamental component of a home for social rent is the secure tenancy that it offers. Empowering local councils to build social housing is undoubtedly the quickest and most cost effective way to gain the quality and quantity of homes this country needs.
By offering meagre and unsatisfactory reform rather than providing subsidy for social homes to be built, the Tories are failing the young, those working hard but on low wages, and most importantly the vulnerable. It is those people that deserve better than the “new deal” Mr Brokenshire has offered them. What we have from the Tories is just talk of more consultations and gimmicks such as league tables. It is nowhere near enough, and misses the crux of the issue: there are not enough homes. It is laughable to imply that for over a million people on housing waiting lists, a league table will somehow help solve their problem.
What would help those without a choice of housing would be to give them one. The Liberal Democrats would lift the borrowing cap on all local authorities, so that councils can borrow to build. Before public land goes up for sale, we would give local authorities the power to direct it for use in social housing development, ensuring they could buy at the current use price, not the speculative development value. We would provide capital subsidy to housing associations that build more social homes. This would help ensure we reach our target of building at least 50,000 new social homes for rent every year. This is the kind of plan the Social Housing Green Paper should lay out, rather than the paltry offer that has been put forward.
The “new deal” that has been offered by the Government is an affront to those most affected, a pattern which seems repetitive with the Tories in power. The housing crisis is a human crisis; the Government must take responsibility and start made a serious effort fix it.
Wera Hobhouse is the Lib Dem MP for Bath