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