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What can the next government do to tackle the housing crisis?

Theresa May is trying to make the snap election on June 8th about Brexit, but it shouldn’t be. There are many wider issues in British society that the next government will have to address alongside the ongoing negotiations in Brussels. The housing crisis is one of the most consequential of all domestic issues.

The lack of affordable housing in the United Kingdom has caused a nationwide crisis, so how can we address it? With damning statistics growing year-on-year, we need to seriously consider the possible solutions to one of the defining issues of our time.

Though successive governments have paid lip service to the problem, none of them have offered a successful scheme to tackle it on a nationwide basis. With a general election fast approaching, will any party put forward a policy that will truly bring us more affordable housing? And how could they even begin to do this in the first place?

 

Alternative living arrangements could be the future 

With rising rent prices and international property investors driving people away from city centres, some alternative living arrangements have begun to present themselves as simple solutions to the housing crisis.

As depicted in the Channel 4 series Crashing, some young people have taken to living as property guardians to secure cheaper living costs in popular, normally overpriced locations. Property guardians are given the responsibility of protecting large properties when, for whatever reason, the owners decide to keep them vacant temporarily. In exchange for their guardianship services, these residents pay much lower rent than they would have in a normal tenancy arrangement.

With over 1.4 million empty homes in Britain, the wider adoption of property guardianship schemes could provide accommodation for many, without the need for massive legal reform.

 

Councils could commit to affordable housing

Within the stipulations of development contracts around the country is the requirement to build a certain proportion of “affordable housing”. But in many cases, these targets are dropped, not met, or wildly misinterpreted. For an example of all of these outcomes, we need only look to former London mayor Boris Johnson.

In 2011, Johnson dropped a 50% affordable housing target from his London development plan. Four years later, it emerged that he was allowing developers to circumvent the affordable housing requirements of local borough councils. It also emerged that his idea of “affordable housing” was rather more costly than the description suggests.

This kind of practice is not unique to Johnson, though; developers across the country often prefer to build expensive properties to sell to investors. Their alternative option is not to build anything at all, and simply wait for their contracted areas of land to increase in value.

This is not always the case, though. Sheffield Council is currently running a hugely successful scheme in which they are building thousands of spacious houses on the outskirts of the city, and selling them to young first time buyers at genuinely affordable costs.

The scheme is a partnership between private developers and the Sheffield Housing Company (SHC)—a firm set up and run by Sheffield Council. Since the programme is run by a housing firm, and not directly by the council, the houses they build are not subject to Right To Buy legislation, which means they can be rented out indefinitely.

The promise of long-term rental income is what encourages development firms to work with SHC, and would likely attract companies in other areas to collaborate with local councils in the same way. After the election, the national government could implement schemes like these on a countrywide basis or, at the very least, offer funding incentives to councils who follow Sheffield’s example.

 

Rental reforms could reshape the housing landscape

 

A solution to the affordable housing crisis does not have to involve large building projects. Small but significant reforms to the current rules around renting could transform the system, giving many more people the chance to live in affordable housing.

“Rent controls” were the most commonly-touted solution to the crisis for a while. Ed Miliband’s Labour shadow cabinet proposed them in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Miliband’s plan was to cap rent increases at the rate of inflation for the duration of a contract, and for landlords to reveal the rent they charged previous tenants to those next moving into the property. Unsurprisingly, these fairly modest proposals were met with outrage from landlord groups and the Conservative party, who argued they would lead to chaos.

Recently, another reform (a version of which was also in Miliband’s manifesto) has been suggested as a way to give homes to more people. One in four UK families now live in rental accommodation, but short tenancy contracts mean many families live in fear of being left homeless after six or 12 months are up.

Because of this state of affairs, charity group Shelter and a number of MPs are calling for longer tenancy contracts. Campaigners say this will help give renting families more security and keep them off the streets.

Rent controls were an unpopular topic last election. Perhaps guaranteed longer-term tenancy agreements can be the popular solution to this ongoing problem.

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