Theresa May is Member of Parliament for Maidenhead.
Of the many lessons the pandemic has taught us, one is surely the importance of home. As Covid forced us away from our favourite haunts and meeting places, our homes took on a new meaning altogether – becoming classrooms, workplaces and fortresses against the virus almost overnight.
Yet the varying experiences of lockdown over the last year and a half reflect concerning disparities in England’s housing stock today.
For example, the instruction to ‘stay at home’ in March 2020 meant something entirely different for the 820,000 households living in cramped, overcrowded conditions. The closure of outside spaces disproportionately affected the one in eight who lack access even to a shared garden. And the thousands of children locked down in one-bedroom flats alongside parents and siblings undoubtedly found the move to online learning all the more challenging.
In short, our vulnerability to the social impact of Covid – and indeed the virus itself – was unavoidably shaped by the places in which we live. Yet the truth we must face up to now as politicians is that, while the pandemic shone a spotlight on many of the injustices in housing, these are not new. Building back better must include staring difficult problems in the face.
As Prime Minster, I made it my personal mission to address the inequity in our housing market. We knew we simply could not carry on in the same direction – and I am proud of what we achieved.
We put generational reforms in motion to improve housing security for renters. We tightened up the planning system to ensure developers meet their obligations to deliver more affordable homes. And we abolished outdated restrictions on local authorities to help build the new generation of council homes we desperately need.
It has been encouraging to see the Government advance on these reforms, including through the increased allocation for new social rent in the £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme, and the forthcoming Renters Reform Bill.
But let’s be clear. The dysfunction in our housing system is deep-rooted, having developed over multiple decades and under governments of all stripes. Addressing it fully remains one of the fundamental public policy challenges of our time.
And so it is welcome that the Centre for Social Justice has set out to develop a new vision for truly affordable housing in England. Because, as the CSJ expose in an important interim report published this week, there remains today a ‘hidden housing crisis’ that is exacting a huge toll on our nation’s collective health, wellbeing and finances.
Millions of renters are seeing the gains of work undermined by exorbitant housing costs, with over two-thirds of private renters in the bottom two income quintiles seeing more than 30 per cent of their disposable income eaten away by rent.
According to one recent study, it is estimated that nearly two million couples have delayed or chosen not to start a family because of their housing situation. Some 124,000 children will go to sleep tonight in temporary accommodation, facing significantly hampered educational prospects as a result.
Taxpayers are now picking up the bill for decades of too few truly affordable homes being built. Next year, housing benefit expenditure is forecast to exceed £30 billion – and then to double again in the 30 years thereafter as more (and older) households see the more expensive private rented sector as their only option.
We must put this right.
For as I argued while in Downing Street, the focus on helping the ‘just about homeowners’ onto the ladder – vital though this is – has at times distracted from what should be our overwhelming priority as Conservatives: ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable and secure home in which to live, work and build strong families.
Of course, this argument is not a new one. The Conservative manifesto of 1951, on which Winston Churchill sought his second term in office, was resounding: “Housing is the first of the social services . . . [t]herefore a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence”.
He was elected on a platform which recognised housing as “one of the keys to increased productivity.” Overcrowded and unsuitable homes were rightly identified as the enemy of work, family life, health, and education.
Margaret Thatcher, similarly, saw the immense potential of social housing as a springboard into home ownership. Indeed, what is often forgotten about the introduction of the Right to Buy is that, in the early years of the policy between 1980–85, more than 250,000 new social homes were built to replenish the stock – giving thousands more families a path to realising the dream of ownership.
Rediscovering our tradition of truly affordable housebuilding for the 2020s is what is needed if we are to address the social, economic and fiscal costs of the hidden housing crisis. Moreover, as polling evidence presented by the CSJ suggests, this would be in tune with the views and desires of the new electorate as it has realigned in the years following the Referendum.
So now I call on Conservatives to let us make it our shared mission, once again, to fix this hidden housing crisis as a central plank of our levelling up agenda. And even as we hope to have put the worst of the pandemic behind us, we must never forget just how much home matters.