Housing campaigners were left disappointed this week after prime minister Theresa May revealed policies that did little to tackle a shortage that’s been plaguing the UK for years.
In her speech on Monday (March 5), May blamed councils for blocking planning permissions that she argued is a main driver of the housing crisis. The prime minister threatened to bring in independent inspectors if councils were thought to be blocking housing development in their area or were failing to meet their housebuilding targets.
But the criticism fell flat when the Local Government Association (LGA) highlighted that councils are approving about nine in 10 planning applications. LGA chairman Lord Porter – a Tory peer – said the figures showed the “planning system is working well and is not a barrier to building.”
“Nearly three-quarters of planning refusals are upheld on appeal, vindicating councils’ original decisions,” he said.
“It is completely wrong, therefore, to suggest the country’s failure to build the housing it desperately needs is down to councils,” Lord Porter added. “The threat of stripping councils of their rights to decide where homes are built is unhelpful and misguided.
“The last time the country delivered 300,000 homes which this country needs each year, in the 1970s, councils were responsible for more than 40 per cent of them and it’s essential that we get back to that. In order for that to happen, councils have to be able to borrow to build homes again.”
Borrowing to build
Allowing councils to borrow to build was an idea floated by housing, communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid last year but the plans were dropped in the Autumn Budget – chancellor Philip Hammond only lifted the borrowing cap in ‘high need areas’ , allowing them to borrow a limited £1bn extra.
A cross-party group of MPs last month called on the government to lift the housebuilding borrowing cap entirely, saying it was the only way to meet the government’s stated target of 300,000 new homes each year.
Labour’s housing spokesman John Healy said the prime minister’s latest announcement shows the government has “no proper plan to fix the housing crisis. Eight years of failure on housing is the fault of Whitehall, not town halls.
“Since 2010, home-ownership has fallen to a 30 year low, rough sleeping has more than doubled, and the number of new homes being built still hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels,” he added.
Healy slammed housing secretary Sajid Javid after it was revealed last week that he failed to spend millions of pounds allocated to affordable housing in the last two years.
Last year, Javid sent £72m back to the Treasury and the year previous he failed to spend £220m budgeted for affordable housing.
Affordable housing crisis
The scale of the affordable housing crisis was further revealed on Monday (March 5) as it emerged that of the 15,000 new homes being built in Manchester over the next few years, not one of them is affordable. In Sheffield, of the nearly 7,000 new homes being built, only 97 are earmarked as affordable.
The lack of affordable housing was once thought to be only entrenched in the capital but the latest figures have raised fears that the affordable housing crisis is spreading.
Homelessness too is skyrocketing – last year was the seventh year in a row that the number of people sleeping rough in England has climbed. Since 2010, homeless numbers have shot up by 169 per cent.
The homelessness crisis was highlighted yesterday (March 7) at Prime Ministers Questions, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn slammed the Tory government’s inaction on the issue. Corbyn pointed out that a homelessness taskforce that was set up four months ago had yet to meet – May corrected him saying they had met once that very morning.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner likewise condemned the Tory government’s record on housing – a problem he argued was complex but solvable.
“It is a national scandal that one of the most basic human needs – decent, safe and affordable housing – is out of reach for far too many people. This housing crisis was manufactured by the Tories and the prime minister’s policies announced this week are little more than tinkering around the edges.
“You cannot increase the affordable housing supply by merely tweaking planning laws. Councils need to be given the powers to borrow to build council and other genuinely affordable homes – we need to build at least 300,000 each year to keep up with demand.
“The millions of households who rent privately cannot be totally abandoned as they have been under this government either. It is scandalous that even the smallest leg up to private renters from this government — the policy to ban letting agency fees — has yet to go through well over a year after it was announced. What we need is rent controls and regulations on private landlords – if these policies can work in Germany and France, they can work here in the UK too.”