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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.