John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and a former Housing Minister
Responding to my comment piece in the Guardian on Monday, where I argue that public housing must be front and centre of efforts to solve the housing crisis, Harry Phibbs makes the case that such policies are unnecessary – or worse – and that the government is already taking action “to make it more affordable to get on the housing ladder”.
But running through the government’s approach to housing is a ‘private good: public bad’ ideology that increasingly constrains what can be done for families as well as single people, those in work as well as out of work, and home-owners as well as the homeless. Set aside my centre-left criticism, what should worry Conservatives is that the Government’s housing policies are failing in their own centre-right terms. And the failure is precisely because, like the cost of living crisis, top Tories seem blind to the pressure that most of the country face on housing affordability.
Take right to buy, which Phibbs mentions as a means of funding more council homes. Despite the government’s pledge to build one new home for every one sold, the latest figures for 2012/13 show that seven council homes were sold for every one started. This means thousands less homes available for low-income families across the country.
Even those homes that are being built are now at ‘affordable’ rent – a term much misused by Ministers. In Phibbs’ own area of Hammersmith and Fulham in West London, setting rents at the new ‘affordable’ rate – 80 per cent of market rents – means that the average person in full-time work would have to spend 59 per cent of their earnings on rent alone. They’d need to earn over £45,000 pounds a year for their rent to meet the standard definition of affordable, where housing costs less than a third of net income. This is well above the local average. The government’s ‘affordable rent’ programme isn’t just a problem for people on the lowest wages, but for aspiring working people on middle incomes too.
Help to buy provides no real solution either. While pumping up house prices in areas of high demand like London, making it harder for most first time buyers to get their foot on the housing ladder, it does little for the rest of the country. House prices are soaring in the capital, but in areas such as North Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Stockton-on-Tees and my own area of Barnsley in South Yorkshire, house prices are still down around between a quarter and a third compared to 2007. This means thousands of home-owners in negative equity, unable to move. They feel less wealthy, they are less wealthy. And the Chancellor’s economic recovery feels very far off for them.
There is a proud Conservative tradition – exemplified by the great public house-builder Harold Macmillan – of making decent housing affordable for all. It’s a shame the Conservative Party has lost this sense of historic mission. The country’s current housing crisis is big enough for everyone – public and private – to play a much larger part in tackling.