First Published 04 August 2015
The majority of MPs will, if questioned, list social housing as an issue that crops up time and again at their surgeries and in their mail. It is a source of deep frustration to the millions of people who do not have a secure home.
My surgeries are packed with individuals and families pleading for help. They are often relying on the kindness of parents, families and friends. But many are living in unsuitable, overcrowded and temporary accommodation -unable to take pride in their own place or make long-term plans.
Some cases are heartbreaking and, of course, there are no easy answers. I work hard with the local authority to ensure that cases are looked into and that our local housing supply is used efficiently and effectively. The reality, however, is that local services have had their hands tied by a lack of social housing and a lack of support from central government to provide the housing the area needs.
In my role as shadow housing minister, I have been able to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. I have put pressure on the government for failings and highlighted areas needing improvement.
The fundamental problem is simple. During the past 10 years this country has built far fewer houses than in the previous two decades.
The waiting list for affordable housing now has a staggering 1.7 million households on it, an increase of 64 per cent since 1997 -and 40,000 up in the past year alone. And 130,000 children are homeless -double that of 10 years ago. While the government is failing to meet its target of building 200,000 homes per annum -just 167,577 were built in 2013/7 -the number of homes built by local authorities collapsed to just 283 in 2013 from more than 1,500 in 1997.
During the 18 years of Conservative government prior to 1997, around 175,000 homes were built each year, but during the first 10 years of this Labour government that average fell to just 146,000.
The social housing waiting list has grown as a direct result of the government’s insistence on top-down, Whitehall control. As well as limiting the right to buy, the government takes 75 per cent of the money raised by each sale from the local authorities. This has dramatically reduced the capital receipts that councils can use to build more housing. Limits on the right to buy have not just prevented local authorities from building more houses, but also restricted the number of new homes that registered social landlords can provide. Shockingly, the number of housing association homes constructed each year has never returned to the 28,000 that were built when Conservatives left power in 1997.
I believe that decent housing is a matter of social justice. We, as a party, will extend the right to buy, allowing local authorities and housing associations to use the proceeds of capital receipts to build homes for those who need them most. But I am also keen to reward good behaviour in social housing with an equity stake in a home to create pride in our communities again and help tenants get a helping hand on to the property ladder, freeing up social housing for others.
We want to see more innovative forms of home creation, including the greater use of community land trusts (CLTs) which could be promoted by defining them in law -a measure which the government resisted when I introduced such a clause into the Housing and Regeneration Bill recently. Encouraging the greater use of CLTs and housing co-ops could be hugely important in providing local affordable housing.
To create the family homes that millions of people are desperate for, we will empower local communities by stripping out the flawed density targets which force councils and developers to build flats, even when family homes are required.
Less top-down targets, driven from the centre, and more of local communities being incentivised to create housing that local people need. Our policies will create more homes than this government and we will do it with more local involvement.
It is time to bring in the change needed for long-term solutions. Decent, environmentally friendly housing should be available for future generations and those that need it now.
Grant Shapps is shadow housing minister.