Yesterday I attended a meeting organised by the National Housing Federation where a number of public sector housing groups came to lobby MPs.
Their gloomy presentation was based on the usual precepts that state direction and control and more use of the state cheque book were the only possible answers to a problem. We were told that the cuts to Housing benefit, the removal of regional planning and housing targets and the level of public funding were all bad decisions which stood in the way of a good housing policy.
In the discussion which folllowed it was good to see some newly elected MPs cut through their two central propositions that all that was needed was more public cash and more central control to solve the problems. It was also good to have an old fashioned meeting about the issues with some disagreements and differing views in a Commons committee room, instead of the informal meetings with drinks or running buffets available that were so common in the Labour years. It emerged as we questioned the panel of presenters that:
1. Current new public sector housing provision costs more than it need do thanks to the rules and bureaucracy surrounding its procurement
2. There are substantial numbers of empty homes already owned by the public sector which need to be brought back into use
3. Subsidising people rather than houses makes more sense. If you subsidise houses people living in them may get better jobs and good incomes but you cannot withdraw the house subsidy.
4. There are problems with a small minority of tenants whose anti social behaviour disrupts neighbours. The Housing Association representatives complained about courts and legal enforcement standards
5. The current policy does not allow sensible incentives to be offered to people in social housing to encourage a move to smaller homes when their families have left home
6. New home building hit new lows during the easy spending Labour years, so even Labour did not in practise think they could build their way out of the problem.
I pointed out that around half of those living in rented accommodation would prefer to buy but cannot afford to do so. We need more pathways into home ownership, assisted by more shared ownership and easier purchase schemes.
The aim of housing policy should be to offer more people the choice and security which ownership brings. For all those approaching retirement it is especially important to lift the need to pay rent for the rest of their lives. The poorest of our society end up paying the most for their housing at the end of their lives when they can least afford it. We should look again at schemes like the proposals I put forward to help members of the armed services own a home whilst on Her Majesty’s service, so they have some housing equity when they leave the forces.
I know many of you think that UK house prices are still too high, thanks to the mortgage soaked credit binge that the government and Central Bank allowed or encouraged 2002-7. That is a topic we have debated often before. Today I want to concentrate on how much the government and its quangos should do, and what is best for social housing tenants.