Jeff Salway: No-one wants to deal with housing

The housing crisis is too big a problem to tackle for most politicians. Picture: Jane Barlow

The housing crisis is too big a problem to tackle for most politicians. Picture: Jane Barlow

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IT WAS barely mentioned during the referendum, didn’t get a look in during the conference season and is unlikely to feature highly in the May 2015 election debate.

The housing crisis, it would seem, is just too big a challenge for today’s politicians. Or, more to the point, it’s one that demands too many long-term choices and too few short-term wins.

Their continued failure is nothing short of disastrous, not only for the housing market but for society, the economy and future generations. Scotland is already facing its “biggest housing crisis since the end of the Second World War”, according to shadow housing minister Mary Fee. She pointed out in October that the number of council and housing association homes built in Scotland in 2013 was the lowest since 1947.

Scotland also has a chronic shortage of private rented property that’s driving up rents and making them all but unaffordable in some areas. Rents rose by an average of 7.1 per cent in the year to September, said Citylets – a period in which wage inflation remained flat and rental demand soared.

There’s little sign of the Scottish Government developing any real appetite for solutions on the scale required. Fewer than 15,000 new homes were delivered in 2013, according to Homes for Scotland – 20,000 short of the target set by Holyrood for 2015.

It’s not just a Scottish problem. Indeed, the current UK government’s main contribution to the housing crisis has been to exacerbate it. Its much-vaunted Help to Buy scheme did far more for buy-to-let landlords than for the supply of affordable homes.

From unaffordable homes and soaring rents to employment mobility, security and inequality, the social and economic implications of failing to tackle the housing crisis are profound. Julia Unwin, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, recently warned that “the reality facing many people is a life below the poverty line because of the extortionate cost of keeping a roof over your head”.

It recently published a report by analysts at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University showing that by 2040 people who rent will be more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as homeowners.

It’s not that politicians are ignoring the problem altogether. Ed Miliband in particular has talked in greater detail than most about housing and there’s broad agreement that more homes must be built. It’s just that there’s too little political will or courage to go beyond a bit of tinkering.

The only time it’s referred to by George Osborne is in the context of the growing housing benefit bill.

What he won’t mention is that spending on housing benefit is rising so rapidly because private rents are going through the proverbial roof when wages have stalled.

Those number-crunchers at Heriot-Watt worked out that if social rents continue to rise towards market rates, the cost of housing benefit could rise by 125 per cent by 2040 – adding another £20 billion to spending.

Scotland has already taken advantage of devolved housing policy to bolster homelessness protection and tenant rights. The escalating housing crisis presents further opportunities to draw a clear policy line between Holyrood and Westminster. But will it be bold enough?

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