01/05/2018 09:25 BST | Updated 01/05/2018 09:54 BST

James Brokenshire Arrives At A Time Of National Housing Emergency

The sheer breadth and depth of the housing crisis means the urgency and importance of the job has never been higher

Simon Dawson / Reuters

So, we have a new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, as James Brokenshire takes over from Sajid Javid. In the past ten years alone we’ve had six Secretaries of State and ten Housing Ministers.

Instability is one of the biggest problems faced by people at the sharp end of the rental market - and it’s fair to say it’s quite a challenge for this particular government department too.

However, James Brokenshire will need time and space to consider his options, given that he starts the job at a time when its urgency and importance have never been higher. It’s no overstatement to say that he arrives at a time when housing has become a national emergency. Once a problem deemed only to affect pockets of London and the South East, our broken housing market is now hurting individuals and families in every corner of the country.

It only takes a brief look at the facts to grasp the sheer breadth and depth of the emergency we face.

More than 300,000 people are homeless: rough sleeping is at an all-time high, and the number of families in temporary accommodation has risen by 65% in the last seven years. 

The number of private renters has exploded, while home-ownership has plunged for the under 35s. Millions of families are now trapped in a debilitating cycle of short-term tenancies, with an average 40% of their income going on rent, impoverishing every other aspect of their lives.

And on top of this, the sheer horror of the Grenfell Tower fire is still in our minds - or it should be: the new Secretary of State inherits a quiet scandal in that only seven of 158 tower blocks deemed unsafe have so far had their cladding removed and replaced.

High rents and short-term tenancies are the main culprits in almost every problem we see in our services at Shelter. It can come as a surprise to no one that the ending of a private tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness. Struggling households on 12- month contracts are too often forced out by landlords looking to jack up the rent beyond what they can pay.

The insecurity and lack of consumer protection that renters face are part of the problem, but the fundamental cause is the shortage of genuinely affordable homes. Last year Britain built the fewest social rented homes in our post-war history. This drought has piled immense pressure on struggling renters.

When emergencies create a huge human cost, they eventually exact a political price too, and the national housing emergency is no exception. In the last two elections housing has been a top five issue for the public. There’s good evidence to suggest that a surge of angry private renters may have cost Theresa May her majority last summer.

The new Secretary of State certainly has his work cut out, but it’s not beyond our collective will to solve this crisis.

In the short term, we can introduce longer-term private tenancies, with rent increases capped at inflation. We also desperately need to end the freeze on housing benefit for private renters.

The long term solutions are equally clear: we need a revolution in social housebuilding.

We need a housebuilding system that delivers the high quality, affordable homes communities desperately want and need. And we need the state to get back to building homes, funding a new generation of social homes at low rents. This would offer stability and financial security to those struggling the most, while lower rents would also help others to save up for the future. And if politicians worry about the long term cost of unfreezing housing benefit, ensuring rents remain affordable is the way to keep that under control.

The good news is the Secretary of State is not starting from scratch.

His predecessor Sajid Javid was working to get to grips with these problems and there’s the beginnings of a new cross-party consensus on much of what needs to be done.

He’ll also have the benefit of a sector full of ideas and enthusiasm. Shelter’s Big Conversation on the future of social housing and the communities that depend upon it will provide fresh big ideas for Government and Opposition to consider. And we will be keen to get to work with the new Secretary of State as soon as possible, to drive forward change, and make the right to a decent home - for it is a right, and nothing less - a reality for everyone.

Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter