Thursday, 13 th July, is exactly one year to the day that we received a promise by Theresa May in her first public statement as Prime Minister: “If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly…”
She was outlining her mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone by fighting injustice, and acknowledged that if you’re from an ordinary, working-class family, life is much harder than many in Westminster realise, writes Steven Lane, of Werrington First.
One such injustice was the mention of being young, and it being harder than ever to own a home. She seemed to recognise that in general, people are working around the clock to manage their lives, but gave assurance that her government would not be driven by the interests of the privileged few, but by their needs instead.
At the time, I was encouraged by this statement of intent, because I feel the biggest injustice of all is the insufficient supply of new housing - a national responsibility.
Like many, I come from a generation who were fortunate to be raised in the era when governments had a genuine sense of duty, obligation and responsibility. Council housing allowed us to attain at least a modicum of security through having an affordable home, and as a result we were less likely to suffer from excessive stress or health conditions. Our children had every chance to perform well at school, which gave them their own chances to make the best of life’s opportunities.
However, after years of successive governments offering house-building that was at best only piecemeal and at worst unambitious, there are now many thousands being denied any glimmer of hope. Surely, even the most hard-nosed politician can see how this crisis is damaging lives that will leave a blight on employment chances and ultimately effect the economy?
Even the Conservative manifesto of 1951 recognised this when it said: “Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses.”
The situation we face today is similar to the housing crisis of the Post-War years. There are too many people unable to get ahead, and because of over-stretched council waiting lists many are left with a choice between a cramped, family home with parents, or paying for over-priced, private rented accommodation. They will be in such despair, with less to spend on food, transportation, health care and with certainly no opportunity to save and improve their lot. Last year, a report from Shelter said the construction of social housing had declined drastically. From a peak in 1993, when 57,020 homes for social rent were built, it fell to 9,590 in 2015. Attempting to remedy this, Government responded with a bold and ambitious plan – to create a bigger, better private rented sector that would build homes specifically for private rent. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough.
The same could be said for any schemes to give a leg-up into private ownership as not everyone wants to buy. What if their level of household income dictates they must rent, and for as little as possible? And, despite Government’s intention, none of these schemes have been anywhere near sufficient to manipulate the market, because house prices continue to rise. I say it’s time for a change of strategy.
Instead of tinkering with different funding streams that encourages debt and a potential for future homelessness, why can’t Government try a sustained, annual input of public investment towards lower rented homes, i.e. social housing. Surely, this would save the taxpayer billions in the long term, and would complement and drive the development that is finally being allowed by councils, and their partner social landlords?
Finally, Peterborough City Council is trying to buck the trend. It is offering the start of a local solution, following this week’s news that Cabinet has agreed that Council should provide funding towards a Housing Joint Venture, with a first stage proposing to deliver 81 homes with a mix of rent and shared ownership. Pleasingly, I have been assured that rental rates would be equivalent to a social rent.
So, if Peterborough can show it is up for the challenge, could this Government play its part, or will the Prime Minister’s statement, on her first day in office, end up just being the customary, political spin - written for her by the Westminster bubble?