Decent housing is the sign of a civilised society

Housing is a basic human need
Housing is a basic human need

It is not often that I pay tribute to a government success, but fairness demands no less.

It is not often that I pay tribute to a government success, but fairness demands no less. The current government has increased homelessness by 1,075% since 2010.

None of those namby-pamby targets to reduce homelessness, so beloved of New Labour.

Many will be people who have been sanctioned, lost their job, refugees, migrant workers, women fleeing domestic violence; all are the new deserving poor who - in Osborne’s phrase - consider homelessness a lifestyle.

It would be churlish to leave out of the congratulations one Mike Weatherley, ex-property developer and MP for Hove, who successfully introduced a bill criminalising squatting. It has already led to one documented death - and probably many more.

It is a sad indictment of society that it prefers houses to remain empty - often for months, if not years - rather than have people living in them. The police, who do their best to avoid prosecutions for domestic violence or sexual assault, are eager to turf out anyone caught sleeping or living in a property company’s empty house.

Housing is a basic human need. Everyone is, or should be, entitled to a roof over their head. When I first rented a bedsit, over 40 years ago, the rent was £3.25. It was controlled. I had security of tenure so that I would not have to move at the whim of a landlord. Housing was not seen as the road to personal fortunes.

Margaret Thatcher changed all that with two housing acts. The Right to Buy Act of 1980 gave council tenants the right to buy the house they lived in at a discount. Its consequences have been disastrous. Councils could no longer house people on their waiting lists as social housing declined. They ended up having to place those in emergency need in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, thus costing them more not less. About one-third of council houses that were sold off are now owned by private landlords, because when interest rates rose the mortgage payments could not be met.

What made it worse was that councils were forbidden from using the sale money to build new houses. It was Conservative councils, such as Joe Chamberlain’s Birmingham council, which in the 19th century pioneered mass council housing. All parties recognised that the growth in population meant there must be more - much more - housing.

The Housing Act of 1988 was even more pernicious. At a stroke, all rent controls and security of tenure for private tenants disappeared. A landlord could and did make people homeless after just six months thanks to the new Assured Shorthold Tenancy. How can a family, forced to move each six months, have a settled life?

The government’s right-to-buy legislation, guaranteeing interest-free loans, has proved a boon for buy-to-let landlords, pushing prices even higher.

Home ownership has fallen to its lowest in 25 years (65%) and the number of private tenants (3.9 million) is greater for the first time than those in social housing (3.7 million).

There is no better example of the failure of the free market than in housing whose only criteria is maximising profits rather than meeting social need.

Young families are increasingly forced to live with their parents. The number of young people aged 25 to 34 able to buy a house is just 1.4m - out of a total of 14.3 million. They have been forced into the private sector, which has increased the number of claims for housing benefit. The government’s response is not to build more houses, but to reduce housing benefit.

Homelessness is an inevitable consequence of rising prices. By pumping money into the housing sector, without building extra houses, house prices inevitably increase.

But it is a short-term fix for electoral reasons. In the 1960s and 1970s over 300,000 houses were built annually. Last year it was just over 100,000.

When prices rise, people draw equity out of their inflated house price and use it to buy imported consumer goods. Instead of using public money to build more houses, both the coalition and New Labour saw increasing house prices as a good thing. The idea of creating real jobs, for example, building storm defences, is relegated to the margins.

Instead, the government’s answer is the bedroom tax, which leads to further social cleansing of areas and more evictions. As if poorer people, or the disabled, are not entitled to an extra room (unlike David Cameron, who could not even remember how many properties he owned).

If Miliband had even a scintilla of radicalism, Labour would propose an end to the sale of council housing, the building of at least 300,000 houses a year, and an immediate introduction of security of tenure and rent controls.

This “policy” of encouraging house-price inflation was a major fact in the economic crisis of 2007 when banks went bust. Toxic investments in the United States, coupled with equally-toxic investments here, brought banks and building societies to their knees. The most recent example is the Co-operative Bank. It is inevitable that it will happen again.