Housing Crisis – However you look at it the real issue is the lack of social housing

How many times have we watched politicians of all colours wringing their hands in an attempt to look like they are tackling our nationwide housing crisis? Far too many times.

We’ve had ‘Help to Buy’ and all the other incentive schemes to get young folk onto the housing ladder but there’s strong opinion that these initiatives do little more than put more money in developers pockets whilst probably keeping house prices high! But however you cut it none of these politician’s schemes are addressing the real problem – the huge lack of social housing.

Yes, we all know that this crisis had it’s seeds set back when 1980’s Thatcherism brought in ‘Right to Buy’ for council houses because the money raised from the sales was not used to build new council/social housing. It’s now generations since that policy was brought in and each year that passes we fail to build enough social houses for rent.

Not everyone wants to own their own home but many who do will sadly never afford it due to our low wage culture.

The effect of all this has been an explosion in the private rented housing sector, but with rents often much higher than the cost of a mortgage. Of course, those who want to save up for a deposit can’t do so in part because they are paying such large amounts to their private landlords! A housing trap indeed and those who are the poorest suffer the most with poor housing conditions, landlords not doing repairs and eviction when the rents outstrip their ability to pay them. At this point local councils have to pick up the problem of homeless people and this becomes a bigger problem week by week, month by month…..

And let’s not get all rose tinted spectacles about how council housing used to be because in many cases it was poor and it led to the Decent Homes Standard that Blair’s government brought in. Trouble is there are still many homes in the social housing/council housing/housing association sector that still don’t meet those standards.

The regulation of housing associations also looks to be far too light touch with some of them, particularly we are told the larger ones, not delivering decent homes or doing repairs in a timely way. Government only seems interested in scoring housing associations over how many new properties they build and no one is keeping an eye on the standards by which they manage their properties. There’s also a worrying slide towards not having strong tenant participation in the running of housing associations.

So we don’t have anywhere near enough social houses and those we do have are at best patchy in terms of their management/maintenance. At the same time we are sacrificing more Green Belt and high grade agricultural land to build houses, which will be almost all privately owned/privately rented thereby not meeting our real housing needs. And that’s not even adding into the pot that the houses we are building are often 3, 4 & 5 bedroomed properties when we also need 1 and 2 bedroomed houses, bungalows etc. for our aging population.

Housing crisis, we certainly have one, but our politicians have their heads firmly in the sand with their fingers in their ears so what they won’t see and can’t hear is not happening.

Homes to live in – Why healthy communities need a wide rage of housing types

During the years that I spent trying to grapple with the Sefton Borough Local Plan I came to understand housing provision much better and I realised that the Local Plan process (in Sefton as elsewhere) is far more about deciding which land is designated for housing then it is about actual housing need.

Yes I saw and read many worthy documents about land use, housing need etc. but I quickly came to the conclusion that actual housing need is always going to be a secondary issue to the needs and wants of land owners, developers and builders. In my view the Local Plan process simply brings some kind of order to the clamor from land owners and developers who want to have their land set aside for housing so that it climbs in value.

By the way this posting is not a stab at Sefton Council, whose Local Plan I fought every inch of the way, as it’s not intended to be a party political piece at all.

My major point is this. Having lived in the Maghull/Lydiate community for 50 years (33 of those years as a local councillor – Town, Parish and Borough) I like to think I have some understanding of it, it’s history and to be precise, bearing in mind the thrust of posting, its housing situation and needs.

If you look at the joint communities of Lydiate and Maghull they have grown massively since the 1930’s and are virtually unrecognisable now from the rural agricultural communities they once were. The housing built in this period has overwhelmingly been of 3 bedroomed semi-detached style/type. Yes a few bungalows have been sprinkled here and there and in more recent times blocks of the McCarthy & Stone type flats for retired people have sprung up. The other significant changes have been the huge reduction in the amount of social housing (caused by 1980’s Right to Buy legislation) and also the significant rise in privately rented accommodation.

Let’s look a social housing first. It served a purpose in the past and because of Right to Buy it now struggles to serve the same purpose because there is much less of it around. The fact that local authorities have been unable to replace social housing (council housing), as it was lost via Right to Buy, has meant that there is a shortage of it. The lack of social housing means that those on low wages who can’t afford to take on a mortgage or even the sky high rents in the private rented sector are in effect left outside the housing market. My view is that most if not all communities that wish to be more than commuter belt or ‘bed and breakfast’* in nature need a decent supply of social housing.

Here in Sefton Borough what was once council housing has all gone either via Right to Buy or due to the fact that government of the day back in the early 2000’s pushed Sefton Council to hand over it’s remaining housing stock to a social landlord – One Vision Housing was created to enable that transfer to happen. I have not looked at the Maghull/Lydiate housing stats for a while now but on one road in Lydiate which used to have 20+ council houses only 3 are still social housing under One Vision Housing. That’s a staggering reduction in social housing and it illustrates my point very clearly.

And what about private rented housing which has made a massive return in most communities from a time where it had all but died out. That’s until the 1980’s when it started to become very common once again. Trouble is it swung back but with rent levels so high renting privately can often be more expensive these days than buying a house on a mortgage!

So this is where we are but when you add into this mix two very significant factors i.e. we are living much longer and that many young people can’t now take on a mortgage (as their parents did) due to the high cost of housing it starts to make our local housing market quite unbalanced. This is especially the case when what is being built is almost always 3, 4 and 5 bedroomed houses**.

Let’s look at us old folks first. Some of us, maybe a significant number of us, may well want to downsize to a smaller property which would likely be all on one level for mobility reasons. But I mentioned earlier that Maghull & Lydiate only has a sprinkling of bungalows and the construction of them is rare these days as there’s more money, for land owners and developers’ in building 3 bedroomed houses and bigger. This of course means that being in short supply the price of bungalows is high, probably too high. That in turn means the opportunity to downsize is reduced so singles and couples who would downsize don’t do so and their predominately 3 bedroomed houses do not come onto the market for families to buy.

OK, keep all that in mind and then say to yourself what should a future housing plan for Maghull and Lydiate look like? Well it would surely be a balance between building single level accommodation for the elderly to downsize into, small houses (1 and 2 bedroomed) for young people trying to start on the housing ladder and the reprovision of some of the lost social housing supply. Frankly the building of large numbers of 3, 4 and 5 bedroomed properties would not be the highest priority because we are not really short of such housing.

So there are the bigger issues as I see them. The Local Plan process puts the important housing issues to the back of planning process as it looks to carve up often very high quality land, which presently grows our food ***, for housing that will not even meet local need. And this despite agricultural land being sacrificed under concrete and tarmac. My feeling is that the previous name for these type of plans – Unitary Development Plans – had a similar end result effect as we have not arrived in the housing mess we are presently in because of a Local Plan that has only just been approved. Those previous plans must have had a similar lack of vision for future housing need. The new Local Plan for Sefton simply ensures that what is presently an imbalanced housing market and provision gets worse in the future and I bet this is being replicated in community after community across the land.

This lengthy and somewhat detailed posting has been an attempt to pull together a number of threads that I have previously blogged about. All political parties that have been in government since the 2WW hold responsibility for this housing mess.

* The term ‘bed and breakfast’ was I think first brought into use in this context during the big 1990’s housing boom years when I recall that in the then Sudell ward of Maghull around one third of the electoral register was changing in a year as houses were continually bought and sold. The term meant that the population was significantly transient and people living in communities seeing such huge housing movement were there effectively for the bed and breakfast only and had little ‘buy in’ to the community itself.

** The fact that we are living in generally smaller family units theses days also leads you to conclude that there is another reason for the need to construct more 1 and 2 bedroomed properties.

*** There’s a worrying lack of connection between housing and environmental policy in the UK. Indeed, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has only recently confirmed what it and many of us have been saying for some time i.e. that there is enough brownfield land (previously developed land) to cater for house building needs and that construction on Green Belt and high grade agricultural land is not actually required. Trouble is that pass has already been sold by Councils across England who have released land in Green Belt for development. Having said that of course the Local Plan process itself is at fault here in that each local authority has to have its sown plan. That means that council areas which have large expanses of brownfield land may not allocate it all for housing and those with very little turn their eyes towards Green Belt and high grade agricultural land.

Right to Buy – An utterly wrong Tory policy

Cameron warned over right-to-buy

David Cameron has been warned by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that his proposed extension to the right-to-buy scheme risks worsening the housing crisis and damaging Britain’s public finances.

The IFS also warned that the measure risked further dividing communities into rich and poor areas. It added that previous pledges to replace every home bought under the existing right to buy scheme had not been followed through.

The Times newspaper ran this story

What Britain needs now is more social housing not less. Giving people a cheap deal to buy their social housing property simply takes out another much needed house from this sector of the housing market thereby reducing the supply of the very type of property we are most in need of!

Places like Maghull, Lydiate and Southport are hardly in need of more private housing stock which bizarrely our Labour-led Council is forcing upon us. It’s social housing that is required and it needs to be built on brownfield sites not on acre after acre of high grade agricultural land which we presently grow our food on.

Both to the left and right housing policy has gone utterly mad.

With thanks to the LGiU for the lead to this story.