"Beds in sheds" shouldn't distract us from the real housing crisis

The coalition's cuts to capital spending are decimating the house building sector.

In recent years, housing campaigners have repeatedly tried to draw attention to what they invariably describe as a "housing crisis". Even think tanks are not immune from making such a claim. However, the reaction from most of the media, the political class and (let’s be frank) the public is largely a collective shrug of the shoulders. In fact, while campaigners desperately try to highlight the perils of house building dropping to historically low levels, the issue which really grabs the spotlight is defence of the greenbelt from the opponents of new housing developments.

The difficulty in drawing attention to the "housing crisis", which is not a far-fetched description, is that its impacts are invariably defuse and indirect. They emerge over time and are hard to isolate. An area becomes gradually less affordable, the chance of home ownership slips slowly over the horizon, overcrowding goes unnoticed behind closed doors, rents just keep on going up more than wages. The housing pressures facing people in different walks of life are often hugely significant to them, but never quite add up to a national inflection point. The sense that things can’t go on like this. That something must be done.

Then we realise that families are living in garden sheds, with no electricity or running water. People are cooking on open flames. One man died in a fire that started in the converted garage where he was living. The leader of Ealing Council thinks that perhaps 60,000 people are leaving in makeshift accommodation, outside of all proper planning and safety laws, in that one London borough alone. In Newham, people are paying £350 a month to rent out a shed in someone else’s back garden.

Pressures in the housing market are like a game of dominos, played with millions of tiles. The mild irritation of professional twenty-somethings who can’t afford to buy a flat eventually feeds through to the acute desperation of a family forced to live in cramped conditions or see most of their pay go straight to a landlord who has got them over a barrel. When the pressures rise and rise ad rise, as they have been in recent years, we end up with the appalling phenomena of "beds in sheds".

So the government is right to address this problem – and enforcement is certainly part of the solution. However, we won’t rid our society of this terrible scar unless we recognise it as the tip of a housing iceberg; the product of series of pressures building up over a long period of time. It certainly won’t do for the government to use today’s announcement as part of a co-ordinated attempt to deflect attention from the continued failure to meet its self-imposed immigration target. Migrants are among those caught up in this utterly intolerable situation, but "beds in sheds" is firmly an issue for Grant Shapps (at least for as long as he occupies his current job) not Damian Green.

Local authorities should be given the powers they need to take action against exploitative "landlords" who are profiting from human misery. But they also need the tools to really make a difference to housing in their area – or else all they will be able to do is shift problems around rather than solve them. They need to be able make the most of their social housing, with full scope over how it is allocated and the ability to borrow against its value. They need to be able to get the best deal possible for tenants and taxpayers from local private landlords, on issues like rents and standards. And, in an era of fiscal constraint, they need to be able to make strategic choices about public money spent on housing in their patch – 95 per cent of which is locked up in housing benefit, unable to be used for building new homes.

So far, the coalition government’s approach to housing policy has been the continuation of a generation of initiativitis, combined with the search for endless financial wheezes to get around the fact that its cuts to capital spending are decimating the house building sector. The scandal of "beds in sheds" should prompt us all to recognise that something has gone badly wrong with the direction of housing policy – not just give ministers something else to talk about the day after figures suggest their immigration policy is failing.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

Housing minister Grant Shapps has given councils new powers to crack down on "beds in sheds". Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.