As to why there is a housing crisis is quite simple; politicians over the past thirty–five years have used housing as a political football. The exchanges between David Cameron and Harriet Harman at the first Prime Minister’s questions after the recent general election were proof beyond any possible doubt of how both of the main political parties have given housing a good kicking.
The first question to the Prime Minister from Harriet Harman was about how many homes had been replaced under the “reinvigorated” right to buy scheme introduced by the coalition government. They had promised that for every home sold it would be replaced on a one-to-one basis. The PM failed to answer the question but responded by asking Harriet Harman whether it was still her party’s policies to oppose extending the right-to-buy to housing associations or had her party changed their position since the election. Harriet Harman answered her own previous question by stating that only one in ten homes that had been replaced. So it continued. Housing, for the PM, was about the “aspiration” of owning your own home. Harriet Harman replied by saying that the percentage of people owning their own home had fallen since the 2010 election.
Under the proposed scheme to allow housing association tenants to buy their homes it is not the government who will refund housing associations for the loss of their stock but local authorities. The money will come from local authorities by forcing them to sell off council homes in expensive areas when they become vacant. This was a policy contained in a report by the think-tank Policy Exchange before its director moved to be part of the set-up at Downing Street.
In 2011 David Cameron was asked what he regarded as the single most significant piece of legislation since the 1960s. He replied the 1980 right to buy Act. It certainly had a significant effect upon the housing stock of local authorities. Also local authorities received a quarter of the revenue from the receipts. Labour further weakened the viability of local authorities with their stock transfer policy which reduced the support grant from central government.
It seems appropriate to compare the way housing has been kicked around by politicians over the past thirty five years to the governance of world football over the same period. Kate Allen, property correspondent for the Financial Times, writing on the state of housing in the UK stated that the housing market is now dominated by a handful of big players who are reluctant to increase output. Such is the control of the big players in the housing market that any party is now afraid that any large scale publicly backed building programme would have an adverse effect upon house prices. The last Labour government was too timid to embark on a house building programme when a senior advisor argued “If we did that it would hit house prices and we would lose the election”. Currently the Bank of England dares not increase interest rates because of the effect it would have not only on the mortgages of millions of people but on the economy as a whole. There seems no way out of the present state of the housing market apart from unforeseen seismic events that will have the same impact as those that are convulsing football’s governing body.
Zoe Williams, Guardian columnist, in the chapter about housing in her recent book about doing politics differently writes that recent governments have been doing whatever it will least cost to hold the present situation together the longest to the advantage of their own party. “Bland, institutional self-interest is suffocating the future.” Either, she writes, “we wait for a political saviour or a massive crash, or more likely the second and then the first.” The alternative is doing housing differently. Imagine, she writes, what it would be like, facing the system, if you were the only one. In fact, you’re one of millions. You’re one of almost everybody, except for the people for whom the system works in their favour. The hard bit of any process is building support. That will not be the hard bit she believes. I hope she is right.