Sunday, 4 June 2017

Will Cinderella go to the (Election) Ball?

Well, by now I expected to be completely bored by the whole election process.

British elections are not normally the most exciting of events, despite so much often being at stake, and with Labour’s approval ratings so low and the Conservatives so high, back when the election was called, I fully expected this to be something of a formality.  How wrong I was!

Against all the odds, Labour have narrowed the gap and the Conservatives fallen in their ratings, so completely unexpectedly the prospect of a hung parliament is once again before us.  Not something I would have foreseen only two weeks ago!

So, that being the case , where do the two parties stand in respect of housing policy, the rather unglamorous Cinderella topic that seems despite its fundamental importance to the wellbeing of the people of these Isles, to be reported on by the media rather less than Jeremy Corbyn’s historic links with the IRA, or Theresa May’s no-shows at televised debates.

Housing is important, because without access to decent a decent place to live, there is very little that someone can do to improve their lives.  Housing has a proven impact on health, access to work and education, life expectancy and so much more.  In recent decades, the housing market in the UK has become dysfunctional, to say the least.  In the “South” and the more wealthy areas of the UK, where an investment bubble has distorted the market, there are simply not enough homes available and so prices have been pushed out of the reach of most “ordinary people”.

Here in the “North” and in the more economically challenged areas of the country, the problem is more nuanced.  There are homes available, but their isn’t the investment capital available to make enough of them decent to live in – a legacy of the death of Victorian heavy industry which many of the houses of the region were built to service.  And with average wages much lower than in the wealthy areas, access to decent homes is still a major problem for too many.

So what are the main parties promising to do about it, if they get their say in government?

Well, for once all three do include the need to increase the supply of new homes and in particular the supply of “affordable” homes.

The Conservatives promise in their manifest to meet their existing target of 1 million homes by 2020 with an additional half million by 2022.

Labour promises to build more than 1 million with at least 100,000 per year “genuinely affordable” council and housing association homes for rent and sale by 2022.

The Liberal Democrats intend to commission directly 300,000 a year by 2022 (which totals 1.5 million over the 5 years of the parliament), with 500,000 affordable homes and 10 garden cities.

All three parties recognise that local authorities have a key role as developers of new, affordable housing.  This is refreshing as this has been ignored in recent years, yet was a key element in addressing the previous housing crisis in the UK after the second world war.

The Conservatives will allow some councils to build housing for social rent, with a proportion sold after 10-15 years, with sitting tenants being given first refusal and proceeds reinvested into new homes.

Labour promises to remove restrictions, although it is not specific in which way it will do this.

The Liberal Democrats will lift the cap on local authority borrowing.

And when it comes to the acute problem of homelessness there are aggressive targets in all three manifestos as well.

The Conservatives promise to half rough-sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it altogether by 2027, setting up a homelessness task force and implementing a Homelessness Reduction Act.

Labour intends to make 4,000 homes available for people with a history of rough sleeping, and pledges to protect residents of homelessness hostels and other supported housing from planned cuts to housing benefit.

The Liberal Democrats expect to increase support for homelessness prevention and ensure there is adequate provision of emergency and supported housing.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats propose the idea of “housing first” – an approach that moves homeless people straight into permanent housing as quickly as possible, thereby enabling the addressing of wider problems they may face to be put on a sound footing.

A major issue that has arisen out of George Osborne’s austerity plan, post-2010, has been cuts to welfare, particularly access to housing benefit, more of which is planned by the current government with the full implementation of Universal Credit, and the imposition of the Local Housing Allowance cap on housing benefit for all housing association tenants to the lowest 30% of rents, with further restrictions on 18-35 year-olds.

The Conservatives say there are no further welfare cuts planned other than announced already. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both pledge to cut the “bedroom tax” and reinstate housing benefit for the under 21’s.  The Liberal Democrats plan also to increase the calculation formula for the Local Housing Allowance from 30% to 50% - i.e. peg it at the average private rent in the area.  Labour also plan to end the 6 week waiting time for Universal Credit and the sanctions regime – the impact of which were  highlighted in the recent Ken Loach film “I, Daniel Blake”.

So I am pleased that all three main parties are promising much that may help improve the housing situation in the UK over the next 5-10 years.  But of course these are only “election promises”, and we all know what can happen to those once real life intervenes!  The issue is therefore also of credibility?  Which party is more likely to be able to deliver real, sustainable change over the long term?

There we enter the realm of faith!

Whatever happens on June the 8th, I hope the government that comes out of it is able to do something, because for too long housing has been hidden behind more urgent, but less fundamental priorities.  Whoever wins, I hope it is finally time for Cinderella to get the new clothes she urgently needs!

Please vote.

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