The housing crisis is pricing workers out of ever more of Britain

Renting is now more expensive than owning with a mortgage in 44 per cent of all local authorities, but for many families it is the only option.

The fact that many ordinary working families are priced out of central London boroughs such as Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Islington will surprise no one. But a new report by the Resolution Foundation shows that there are now affordability black spots across all parts of the country where low and middle income families would have to spend more than a third of their income on housing to find a decent place to rent or buy. Working families are being priced out.

A couple with one child on £22,000, for example, has to spend more than 35 per cent of its net income – a commonly accepted ceiling for affordability - to meet the ongoing costs of a mortgage in nearly two fifths of all local authorities. If the same family wanted to rent privately, they would find that renting was unaffordable in a third of all local authorities. Housing costs are becoming a struggle even for median income families on £28,000.  In one in 16 local authorities, rent would eat up more than 35 per cent of their income. And in London, there is no local authority where a family on £22,000 can rent even a modest a two-bedroom property and pay less than 35 per cent of their income in rent.

Of course, there are low income families renting in all of these 'unaffordable' parts of the country but they do so at a sacrifice. They are either paying a vast amount of their income towards housing costs and forgoing other essentials, living in cheap, substandard accommodation or in overcrowded conditions. or maybe living miles from work, where housing costs are lower. With incomes for ordinary working families not expected to be any higher in 2020 than they were in 1997-98, the affordability problems of Britain’s ordinary working families look set to persist.

The report highlights the growing affordability challenge for those in private rent, as falling wages fail to match even modest rent rises in some part of the country. Renting is now more expensive than owning with a mortgage in 44 per cent of all local authorities, many of which are in the north. In the north east, for example, renting is more expensive than owning with a mortgage in all local authorities in the region and in the north west, in more than eight out of ten local authorities. But for many low and middle income families, renting privately is the only option. Social housing, while affordable in all parts of the country, is in short supply and targeted at the most vulnerable and even a 10 per cent buyer’s deposit can be difficult to save for on a modest income. Of the 1.3 million low to middle income households who now face unaffordable housing costs, close to half are private renters.

The focus of the government’s response to this affordability crisis has been the Help to Buy scheme which provides government support to allow those who cannot afford to buy with a conventional mortgage access to a high-loan-to-value mortgage or an equity loan. This will no doubt help some people to get on the housing ladder but it will do little to meet the needs of the low to middle income families who currently face the biggest affordability problems. It has become almost trite to say that the solution to Britain’s housing problem is that we need to build more homes. But without more supply, schemes like Help to Buy simply risk inflating house prices as more people come onto the market in search of a home. Estimates suggest we need more than double the number of homes that we are currently building each year. But improving affordability has to be more than a simple numbers game. We need to build more homes in the right locations and of the right type- and at the right price - not just more homes for sale or prime central London rental developments - to meet the needs of households who currently have few options. 

"Schemes like Help to Buy simply risk inflating house prices as more people come onto the market". Photograph: Getty Images.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle