There is a desperate shortage of affordable housing in the UK. Hundreds of thousand of people are on waiting lists, hostels or temporary accommodation waiting for a property that they will be able to afford to buy or rent.
The flagship ‘right to buy’ policy of the Thatcher government produced an expansion in home ownership whilst concomitantly depleting our social housing stock. And as the gap between north and south of our country, especially London has accelerated so has the concentration of demand for affordable housing.
The answer to this crisis is not to keep chasing ever changing building targets but rather to fully utilize our existing capacity. The think tank Civilians proposes that we can build 2.5 million new homes on brownfield land alone. I am arguing that we can produce hundreds of thousands of new homes by facilitating the conversion of long term disused office and commercial buildings to residential. Added to this, we could possibly double our affordable housing capacity simply by demolishing and redesigning many of our shortsightedly configured post-war council estates.
It is therefore both unnecessary and morally reprehensible that we should use our breathtaking countryside for housing purposes. The fact is immigration has enhanced and contributed to the vibrancy of our urban centers. However, successive governments have failed to plan for the fact that their open door immigration policies would necessitate millions of new homes. By failing to plan effectively the political establishment has contributed to mistrust and tension in our communities, and the unfortunate perception that outsiders are receiving social housing in priority to those already living here.
Worst still, there are at least 700,000 properties in the UK. Yet no government has managed to provide the right incentives to bring these properties back to the marketplace. No property owner or landlord wants to keep their property empty not earning income during such a buoyant market. The overriding reason properties are kept empty is the fact that some owners simply cannot afford to refurbish them. In fact the Halifax and the Empty Homes Agency have carried out joint research that suggests 78% of British adults think government should prioritise the issue of empty homes. Government could provide council tax incentives and even low interest refurbishment loans to landlords who legally undertake to then rent their properties at below market rent or to rent to homeless persons.
We will never diffuse the housing time bomb through private enterprise alone. What we need is a grand vision which brings all of us together. Which recognizes that housing is a basic need and human right which goes beyond ideology and party politics. Time to think outside of the box if we are to avert an epic housing crisis not known in our country since Victorian times.