Building for building’s sake is pointless: areas need clear guidelines on what tenures are needed, and communities need to be mixed. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
I’ve yet to reach my thirties, but sometimes feel I’ve seen more housing reviews commissioned and launched than I’ve had holidays. Each time, a small clamour of tentative optimism is pricked by the predictable conservatism of the findings and recommendations issued.
So I held out little hope for the Redfern review, not least because it was chaired by the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey. It is understandable that Pete Redfern would accept the offer to run an independent review, commissioned by Labour’s shadow housing minister John Healey, but to the casual observer, it seems akin to asking a match manufacturer how to lower the number of fires in the country.
Some points in the Redfern review seem obvious, some are welcome: few people will be surprised that the review blames rising house prices, tougher first-time buyer credit constraints, and real-term decreases in earnings for falling home ownership rates. The review points out that a blinkered obsession with increasing supply to lower house prices is fruitless: the cumulative effect of large-volume housebuilding on prices is negligible, and does very little to lower them. The answer, the review argues, is to establish an independent housing commission to look at creating a fair market for all tenures.
For people at the sharp end of the housing crisis, this softly, softly approach will be of little comfort. Staid ideas that don’t rock the boat haven’t helped so far, and as the crisis drags on, it deepens. So here are some more radical ideas that could genuinely help.
Right to buy has had its day: Scotland has scrapped it, Wales is moving to scrap it, England is clinging on desperately, and the government is now facing the prospect of backtracking on its plan to extend the scheme to housing associations post-Brexit. When the scheme was initially rolled out, dissent was mollified with claims that the homes sold would be replaced on a one-for-one basis. This has never happened: what has happened is the wholesale flogging of council stock at knockdown rates, which is then often sold, leaving councils poorer and expanding the private rental sector.
Local authority waiting lists around the country show that the demand for council housing has rarely been higher: flogging more municipal housing shows a contempt for the tenure and makes no economic sense, since councils are instead forced to house homeless families in expensive temporary accommodation and housing benefit is paid out to private landlords, rather than to councils.
Building for building’s sake is pointless: areas need clear guidelines on what tenures are needed, and communities need to be mixed. Many people who may not be on low incomes would prefer to rent from a local authority than a private landlord: giving them the option to do so by boosting council building (through increased funding) offers tenants more security, will reduce the stigma of social housing, and helps councils fund their work through rent. Social housing isn’t subsidised: in the long term it pays for itself.
The council tax system needs to be overhauled: since the coalition government withdrew council tax benefit, hundreds of thousands of the poorest households have ended up in arrears or in court. Meanwhile, people in the most expensive houses in Britain pay little more in council tax each month than their poorer neighbours. The tax is regressive and a rethink is long overdue.
Finally, a report for the London Assembly [pdf] this year recommended a pilot of a land value tax in the capital – taxing the rental value of land, rather than buildings – to encourage development, especially for housing. It also has the potential to redistribute wealth more equally, which remains a huge problem in Britain.
Anyone hit by the housing crisis – an increasing number of us – has little patience for tinkering around the edges of the UK’s dysfunctional and geographically distorted housing system. They want radical new approaches to housing, and that requires a complete rethink of how we house people, how we think about housing, and whether homes should function as assets.
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