Sunday, 1 July 2012

Housing Crisis - by Ben Gummer MP

Our housing crisis

A while ago someone gave me - I think it may have been Father Christmas - a funny little book that is simply called 'Men and Sheds'. The publisher's description says it all: 'It has been said that a shed is to a man what a handbag is to a woman - both contain all the essentials for surviving in the modern world and in the same way that no decent man would ever consider looking in a woman's handbag uninvited, so no reasonable woman would dream of setting foot in a man's shed.'

Housing is the biggest immediate problem facing this country. Across Britain, and especially in the south and east, people cannot find somewhere of their own to live. Even those with good jobs, on good money, struggle to collect the deposit banks now require, let alone find somewhere they can afford. For those on very low incomes the situation is worse still: affordable and social housing is in massive demand but the supply is very short. The result is that many people are living in unsuitable private rented accommodation and sometimes worse: for these, the B&B or even a mate's sofa is their home. It is a hard reality that I see every day in my inbox and every week in my surgery. By far and away, housing is the largest part of my postbag and surgery list.

For most young people now a decent home is getting beyond reach. That simple fact crushes hope and dents aspiration. It is a terrible state of affairs. How did we get there?

First up is our old favourite: our ageing population. As people stay alive for longer, and healthier for longer, they are not moving out of their homes, even when their families are grown up and have long since flown the nest. It means we now have many older people living in family homes, homes that should be lived in by young families that need the space. The situation is made all the worse by a growing population and the continued move of people from Scotland and the North to the South.

Secondly, with half of all marriages now ending in divorce, and an even greater rate of separation amongst couples who have children but do not marry, couples all over the country are having to use two houses where previously one was needed. Where parents have joint custody, they need the space for the children even if they are only staying with them every other weekend.

Both of these challenges - ageing and ruptured families - could have been accommodated had we built enough houses. But we did not. We have not been building enough houses for forty years. Anything to do with the recession? Absolutely not. House building hit an all-time low in the best years of the 2000s, when credit was almost limitless and interest rates low. The people to suffer most were - as ever - those with the least, as affordable and social housing slumped also to an all-time low.

What's the solution? Well, the first thing is to change planning law to make it easier to build and better for the communities that must accept the developers in. I voted on that last year and we will begin to see the fruits very soon. Housing completions - reflecting decisions taken some years before the last general election - are still very low, but housing starts - actual work beginning again - is picking up nicely as a result of what we've done. But it will be some years before we see people move in.

For those on the most limited means we must act fast. Ipswich Borough Council says it wants to build new council houses, not possible under Labour but made possible again by the Coalition. Frankly, I do not care who builds these new houses, just that they are decent and come as quickly as possible. It would be a crying shame if our Borough, for its own prestige, chose to build a few council houses itself when far more could have been put up by housing associations in much less time. If they prove me wrong, I'll be the first to congratulate them. The proof, however, will be in the building.

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