Through the keyhole: introducing the New Statesman's housing week

Over the next week, we're going to be examining the state of housing in Britain today.

Britain's housing situation is shambolic.

Since 1988, house prices have increased by 55 per cent in real terms according to the Halifax house price index — and almost all of that rise happened in just two years. Between 2002 and 2004 the average price of a house in the UK shot from £101,113 to £148,399. Since the market's peak, in 2007, the price of the average UK house has actually declined in real terms, but the price-to-earnings ratio of a house still stands at 4.5:1.

The bad situation nationwide is worse in our cities. As our economy steadily moves away from agriculture and manufacturing towards services, there is an ever-greater incentive to centralise our working lives in these hubs of activity. But expansive green belts stop us building our cities out, and the difficulty of getting planning permissionnot to mention the continued unpopularity of high-rise living — stop us building up.

As house prices have risen, we've also radically changed the way we provide accommodation for the poorest in society. In the post-war era, house-building was done by a mixture of local authorities and private enterprise. By the end of Thatcher's premiership, local authorities had largely stopped building homes altogether; and as a result of the recession, the number of new units built per year by private enterprise has also halved.

Gone is the idea of a council home for life, ideally ensuring stability, community and safety. Those ideals were rarely met, and it's undeniable that council estates had their flaws, but the alternative is worse. The private rental sector is expected to pick up the slack, with rents subsidised by the government's housing benefit. Landlords can, and do, raise rents at any time, forcing families from substandard house to substandard house — and occasionally to hostels, B&Bs and even the streets.

Even while the bottom end of the market is being forced to turn to the private rental sector, the top end is as well. The 0 per cent deposits of the pre-crisis world are gone, apparently forever. But while mortgages have reverted to the nineties, house prices haven't, and so, according to Halifax, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 30 years old (rising to 32 in London). If you want to live in a city, and don't have a nest-egg from your parents, your only option is to rent, usually indefinitely.

An increasing proportion of people renting at both ends of the housing market, matched with the precipitous drop in housebuilding since 2007, obviously means a squeeze on rents. But the government responded, not by tackling the cause, but by capping the amount of housing benefit people could receive, locking a whole social class out of large swathes of London.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the implicit promise that a house purchase is something that you can only ever make money on. If house prices were to fall, that would be disastrous for most people who own property, and that disaster would be passed on to the general economy. But if housing costs are not to fall, then Britain's young people and renters will have to carry on living through the disaster we are already experiencing. "The whole of British housing policy can be seen as an effort to reduce the cost of housing without affecting house prices", says Dan Davies, and that's a doomed attempt from the start.

Over the next week, we're going to be examining these concerns in greater detail. We'll look at the private rental sector, at the criminalisation of squatting and at the virtues of high-rises; we'll also be investigating the cost of the bedroom tax, and the implications of the housing benefit cap. If you think you have something to add to the discussion, you can tweet me or email me, and all the pieces will be collected here (and here) as the week goes on.

Monday: George Eaton on how the bedroom tax will hit disabled people, and Alex Hern on the death of Daniel Gauntlett due to the new anti-squatting laws.

Tuesday: Preston Byrne on why the Eastleigh by-election set back reform of planning laws, and Labour MP Helen Goodman on how trying to live on £18 a week showed the unfairness of the bedroom tax. 

Wednesday: Social researcher Declan Gaffney demonstrates how housing benefit has risen through need alone, and Simon Parkin on the dilemma faced by his grandparents as one of them has to go into care.

Thursday: Jeremy Messenger paints a picture of the omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on tenants in the private rental sector experience, and VMC Rozario gives an innovative idea for how to build more houses.

Friday: Rebecca Tunstall on how housing traps people in unemployment.

A housing estate in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.