Political foes unite over a future for social housing

A former Labour leader and former Tory treasury minister together set an example as to how the housing crisis can be tackled.

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As speculation mounts over the publishing of the Social Housing Green Paper today (July 24), former Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for social housing to be a national asset again – and he’s joined by a former Tory treasury minister in doing so.

Together, Miliband and Jim O’Neill, that former treasury minister and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, say politics has failed the British people when it comes to housing – drawing comparisons with the billions pumped into HS2 and Crossrail.

“We need a change in approach, a fraction of the same one-off investment in social housing would make a substantial contribution to the number of new homes that we need – putting public money into assets rather than guaranteeing landlords’ profits,” Miliband says.

Putting aside political differences, Miliband and O’Neill joined Shelter’s social housing commission to fight for housing, which they believe to be the biggest crises facing Britain and not been properly addressed for a generation.

“There has been a huge growth in private renting but no minister has ever argued for that.

“The costs of housing benefit have risen to tens of billions a year but that was never a conscious objective, and we have seen the long, slow death of the building of social housing without explanation,” said O’Neill.

To Miliband, the crisis is a failure of market and state, as referenced in Letwin report and its finding that the whole system of building and development was working to keep prices high, leading to a decline in homeownership while the private rented sector is poorly regulated, too often low quality, and expensive.

“Yet, despite the crisis, the state has not stepped in.

“The reality is the government used to build low-cost housing.

“In fact, both parties built hundreds of thousands of low-cost homes after the second world war – known as council housing or latterly social housing.

“But we have built fewer social homes in the past decade than we managed in one of those post-war years,” Miliband said.

O’Neill sees the switch away from the state building low-cost housing as not only being expensive for renters.

“It’s turned the government into one of the main sources of income for private landlords with an explosion in the number of families renting privately – one in four – and £24bn spent on housing benefit,” he said.

Both agree that, at its worst, expensive private renting is forcing families into homelessness – which they describe as a ‘scarring’ the country.

Together, they cite the “common assumption” of the homeless being workless challenged by  the research released yesterday (July 23) by the Commission showing more than 33,000 working families across England who are homeless and living in temporary or emergency accommodation.

“That means more than 50% of all homeless families are working – in London it’s 60%.

“There can be no greater symbol of our dysfunctional housing market than the fact that in Britain in 2018 having a job does not guarantee you can afford a roof over your head,” said Miliband.

Together, Miliband and O’Neill fear the thousands of working homeless families are the tip of the iceberg, with predictions that one in three millennials may never own a home and that most who do will have saved into their late 30s and 40s.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, we are an outlier across Europe in both the high cost of housing and the speculative nature of development.

“Indeed, we believe that experience and the historical record in Britain suggest something important – the market on its own will never produce the large quantities of low-cost housing that we need,” said O’Neil .

The commission is due to publish recommendations in the autumn, but its work so far clarifies the basic principles of ending prejudice against new social housing and seeing social housing as meeting the demands of those in dire need or for whom owning is out of reach.

“We must make a profound and generational shift away from a belief that housing benefits alone can solve this problem and back towards investment in bricks and mortar and a view that affordable housing is a national asset like other infrastructure,” said Miliband.

“And we need to understand that, with the costs of borrowing at historic lows but the sense of anxiety about the prospects of future generations at such a high, investment in social housing is an absolute and vital necessity for our country-  whatever party is in government,” said Miliband.

To O’Neill that investment is something cannot afford not to do.

“In the period after the second world war, as the country recovered from its greatest crisis, successive governments of both parties recognised the need for profound change on housing because they recognised the demand for change – the period of postwar social and economic success for our country was built on this pillar of affordable housing,” said O’Neill.

“We believe homes fit for the British people must again be a vital pillar of national success, we want the government to choose a better way to spend public money to undo mistakes that have been made and instead deliver for the people of this country,” he said.

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