As a survey published yesterday reported plummeting levels of home ownership across the country, the new housing minister, Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, was wheeled out for broadcast media to re-assert his Tory Government’s determination to transfer more public property into private hands through its right-to-buy policy.
It is a policy which those who have worked in the housing sector for longer than Barwell’s fortnight in the job almost universally agree is certain to make the national homelessness crisis even worse.
Because if there’s one thing worse than not having the privilege of home ownership, it must surely be not having any home at all, and the Tory right-to-buy proposals seem destined to deter housing associations and local authorities from spending their money to build much-needed social housing at the risk of losing the properties at knock-down prices because of the Tories’ Thatcherite dogma.
Yesterday’s figures from think-tank The Resolution Foundation showed that London’s crisis of unaffordable housing has spread to parts of northern England and the Midlands.
The Foundation, which works to improve the living standards of those on low to middle incomes, showed that home ownership in outer London, including Croydon, had fallen by 13.5 per cent – from a peak of 71.4 per cent in 2000 to 57.8 per cent in February this year.
With two-bed “luxury apartments” being put on the local market for a shameless £500,000 a time, it is little wonder that few hard-working local families can afford their own homes and are forced into the private rental sector. Outer London’s fall in home ownership is the second biggest decline in home ownership seen anywhere in Britain.
Yet meanwhile, Barwell and his new ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government have pinned themselves in a corner which will make it even more difficult to deliver on the (not always conflicting) twin aims of reducing homelessness and increasing home ownership, as they have also pledged to protect the Green Belt.
Barwell’s boss at the DCLG, communities secretary Sajid Javid, told the House of Commons during departmental questions before the dissolution of Parliament that “there will be no dilution whatever to the vital protections of the green belt”.
Javid said that Green Belt is “absolutely sacrosanct”. Which sorts of limits the options of his housing minister, and probably makes any non-Green Belt land within outer London even pricier when it comes up for development.
Not that Barwell is arguing with his boss on the matter, as he told Parliament that development on the Green Belt is “inappropriate”.
In his first session of departmental questions, after four years of Commons omerta due to his previous job in the Tory Whips’ office, Barwell got up on his hind legs and said: “The Government is committed to the strong protection and enhancement of Green Belt land. Within the Green Belt, most new building is inappropriate and should be refused planning permission except in very special circumstances.”
Yes, this is the same Gavin Barwell who not so long ago, and when it suited a development scheme which is very close to his heart, was lobbying for a road-building scheme to rip up a public park in another, more polluted and more built-up, part of Croydon, outside his own constituency.
During the same session in the Commons last month, Barwell also reiterated that his party’s priority is to develop land for home-owners, rather than for social housing. “One of the critical things that we should all be trying to do is help people enjoy the opportunity that nearly all of us as Members of Parliament enjoy,” said the owner of a house outside his own constituency, in the leafy suburbs of Sanderstead.
As much as new Prime Minister Theresa May attempts to re-brand the Tories as a “new” Government, on housing policy it all sounds like more of the same, from Conservatives who under David Cameron built fewer new homes in their six years in charge than any previous Government since Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s.
Given that abject failure, Barwell might be well-advised to look elsewhere for advice and suggestions on how to fix the housing crisis he has inherited. The Grauniad‘s Dawn Foster has even laid out a helpful six-point plan for Barwell’s housing department. But as Barwell is a Conservative MP with a close association with a major land-owner who is involved with a £1.4 billion development scheme, the chances of him and his mates adopting some of the commonsense solutions offered probably lie somewhere between “no hope” and “Bob Hope”. And Bob’s been dead 13 years.
“If you haven’t got a stable roof over your head, it’s difficult to focus on much else,” Foster wrote. “The housing crisis affects millions, from the young to the old, all across the country. Accepting this, and moving on from the idea that helping a small tranche of wealthy Londoners on to the housing ladder is the only worthwhile focus is the sensible thing to do.”
So here’s something for Barwell to study closely over the summer:
- Stop subsidising home ownership, and use the cash to build social housing: social housing pays for itself in basic rent terms quickly, and saves even more cash in preventative welfare spending on housing benefit, homelessness services, and even the NHS, by improving health outcomes
- Accept that building more houses isn’t the be-all and end-all of solving the housing crisis. The type of housing you are building matters hugely, as the glut of luxury housing in London shows, while council estates are constantly threatened with demolition
- Make renting fair. Part of Britain’s obsession with home ownership, aside from our politicians pushing it as the only tenure of choice for those “hardworking families of alarm clock Britain”, is down to the fact that private renting has boomed, but with too-high costs and too-low quality. If tenants had more rights and a fairer deal, many people would happily rent for longer rather than pay over the odds for a shoebox flat which consigns them to eating beans on toast for a decade
- Think long-term, and outside London: the housing crisis is not simple, and geographical inequalities compound this. Many areas of the country have problems with negative equity, especially Northern Ireland; empty homes are a problem in Wales and the North and a lack of social housing is a feature of most towns and cities in the UK.
- Scrap the Bedroom Tax: it’s unfair, it doesn’t work, and it completely ignores the fact vast swathes of post-industrial Britain have a glut of family homes and few smaller homes
- Supported housing is more important than the government realise: more people are living longer, and will need support to live independently, but supported housing for older people, disabled people and families fleeing domestic violence is under threat due to the government’s narrow focus on home ownership. Supported housing creates jobs, and is vital for an inclusive society
Happy to help, Gav.
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