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No one has been prepared to face the hard facts about British housing policy

PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 August 2018

Some new council houses have been built in Ipswich - but nowhere near enough. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Some new council houses have been built in Ipswich - but nowhere near enough. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


David Ellesmere’s column earlier this week on the housing crisis seems to have struck a nerve with many people – particularly his political opponents.

Councillors were given a tour of the  Bader Close development in Ipswich while it was under construction - but more social housing schemes are needed. And they must have government support. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNCouncillors were given a tour of the Bader Close development in Ipswich while it was under construction - but more social housing schemes are needed. And they must have government support. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

But his argument about the need to build more social housing certainly has some merits – even though it’s difficult to believe that building thousands of new council homes would end the scourge of rough sleeping on its own.

There is a shortage of homes in this country and many thousands more need to be built. There is an even more acute shortage of affordable homes – which means there needs to be a real change in attitude to housing in this country. And I cannot see that happening.

Because the fact is that many people look down their noses at social housing. They see it as second-best. They see it is something to get away from as you climb the greasy pole of society.

And while that attitude persists (especially persists in government) there is going to be no real change in the way the government views housing issues.

That especially applies to Conservative politicians – but Labour cannot really take the moral high ground. I don’t recall any major relaxation of housing rules allowing local authorities to replace their lost housing stock between 1997 and 2010!

What we currently have is a housing market where new owner-occupiers are getting increasing squeezed out and starter homes are being snapped up by buy-to-let investors making a living from the rents they are able to charge occupants.

There are fewer and fewer first-time buyers as even the smallest houses or flats are out of their reach. In Ipswich the smallest house now seems to cost between £150,000 and £180,000. Move out of town and you’ll struggle to find anything for less than £200,000.

That would require a massive deposit for a young person (or even couple) starting out on their career – a fact that many estate agents seem to acknowledge by listing their properties as “investment opportunities”. What they mean is they’re trying to sell to buy-to-let landlords.

Yet the current government doesn’t seem to have woken up to the fact that home ownership is an impossible dream for so many voters. What they want is good-quality, good value rental homes.

Harold Macmillan understood that in the 1950s but Margaret Thatcher’s war on council homes still seems to infect many areas of her party.

Many Tory politicians, whether cabinet ministers or council candidates, are terrified of council tenants – believing they are all Labour voters.

They may have a point now after nearly 40 years of subliminal messages that council houses are only for the losers of society – but it wasn’t the case in the past. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s council tenants knew who had built their very comfortable homes!

During the 1980s and 90s Conservative governments refused to let local authorities build new homes – even though they had forced them to sell off hundreds of thousands under right to buy legislation.

This is where Labour needs to take its share of the responsibility. One big failure of Tony Blair’s government was that it did not reverse the in-built prejudice that had built into the civil service against council homes during the 18 years of Conservative government.

There was not major council house building programme between 1997 and 2010. No Labour politicians wanted to talk about housing.

The result is that now, in 2018, we have a generation who bought a starter home in the early 80s, have moved twice and now live in an “average” home whose value has increased from £60k to about £250-£300K in 20 years with grown-up children who know the only way they’ll ever live in their own house is when they inherit the family home in 20 or 30 years time.

For a government to ignore that fact and to witter on about pointless (but cheap) programmes aimed to make life easier for a few thousand wannabe homebuyers while ignoring the need for a real boost for social housing is scandalous.

It isn’t as if the money isn’t available. The government is happy to lend money to Ipswich, Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils to buy commercial properties – but not to buy homes for their citizens to live in.

Of course whether Babergh/Mid Suffolk would want to build council homes for pesky Labour voters when they can invest in nice shiny car showrooms in Milton Keynes is another question altogether!

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