House building crisis is a social justice issue

House building crisis is a social justice issue

11th January 2013

This week, Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, announced that the shortage of affordable housing is a social justice issue.  He is right to do so.  He highlighted that:

  • in the 1990s an average person needed to set aside five per cent of their income each week for eight years to save for a deposit on a house, but today the same person would require 47 years;
  • 90 per cent of England is not built-up and around 40 per cent is protected from development – the housing crisis could be solved by building on two or three per cent of the total;
  • Britain needs to build 270,000 homes a year, around double the number built each year between 2000 and 2010.

Important though they are, the issue goes beyond these statistics.  In Housing Poverty: From Social Breakdown to Social Mobility the CSJ pointed to the increasing unaffordability of home-ownership and called for a ‘localised revolution in housing supply’.  The report also highlighted the race to the bottom in social housing which traps people in areas of deprivation.

In order to reverse this, we made a series of recommendations to increase the flexibility of social housing, support people into home ownership and raise the flexibility of tenure. This could give people living in some of the most disadvantaged communities the tools to progress in life.

But for this to be successful, tenants on low incomes in the rental sector need to have homes to move into – this must mean building more homes.

Despite early promises, the Coalition Government has yet to deliver, with housing starts totalling 98,020 in the 12 months to September 2012: down 9% on the year before.

Neither the Government’s new framework nor further proposed changes to the planning process go far enough.  Opponents claim they represent a threat to the nation’s green pastures, but given that the proportionate impact on the countryside is likely to be small, their position is hard to defend.  A far more radical approach is required if we are to get on top of this issue.  And the social justice case for doing so is clear.

This battle must be seen in terms of its impacts on the most disadvantaged communities and on welfare – keeping potential buyers out of the ownership market and in rented accommodation drives up rents across the board, penalising those in low income employment.  For those having their rent paid by housing benefit, it acts as another unsustainable drain on the welfare bill.  A staggering £8.4 billion was paid in 2011/12 to private landlords – 42% of the total housing benefit budget.

In a time of concern over living standards and high price inflation in necessities, housing is a staple good that has persistently high prices due to unnecessary constraints on domestic supply – restrictive planning laws and resistance to building by existing home-owners.

The Coalition’s performance on house building is central to its performance on welfare and on social justice.  Fulfilling their promises requires having the mettle to ensure our planning system does not continue to frustrate the nation’s needs.