The housing crisis is worse than any of the parties are prepared to admit

Even a million new homes over five years won't be enough. The UK needs 1.5 million just to meet need.

In recent months, all three of the main parties have sought to demonstrate that they are responding to the housing crisis. Labour has pledged to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020 through the creation of new towns and garden cities. The Lib Dems have called for councils to be allowed to pool their borrowing limits in order to fund a major expansion of social housing. The Tories have launched Help to Buy, which, they claim, will stimulate supply as well as demand. 

But for some idea of the extent to which all parties are still underplaying the extent of the crisis, it's worth reading today's Policy Exchange report on the subject. As it notes, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes from 2015 to 2020 simply to meet need, 300,000 a year. Around 221,000 new households are expected to be formed each year over this period and there is a significant backlog. Thus, even the target spoken of in Labour circles - a million in five years - falls short. As the report says, "1 million homes over five years, around 200,000 homes in England, is actually a failure to keep up with predicted housing need, which is itself likely to be an underestimate of housing demand. Indeed, such language is unhelpful in many respects, as both need and demand are to some extent arbitrary. A young person living at home with their parents but who wants to leave might be seen as having a 'demand' or 'need' for housing, depending on how this is defined. They are not homeless, but they want to move out."

If this government and the next are to even come close to meeting need, they will need to enable a dramatic expansion of both private and social housing. This will require further planning reform, action against landbanking and the removal of the cap on council borrowing (something that George Osborne, for entirely ideological reasons, has refused to do).  

But before solving the crisis, politicians will need to acknowledge its scale. In today's Evening Standard, one finds Grant Shapps boasting that Help to Buy will give Londoners "the homes they need" on the same day that DCLG figures showed that the net supply of housing rose by just 124,270 in 2012-13, a fall of 8% since 2011-12 and the lowest number since the series began in 2000-01. Help to Buy, which seeks to inflate demand, rather than supply ("Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up", George Osborne reportedly told the cabinet), will do almost nothing to change this. While in a better position than the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are still showing little of the ambition required. If an even greater number of families are not to be denied the basic right to housing, that must change - and soon. 

David Cameron is shown around the Egerton Green housing development in Altrincham, near Manchester on September 29, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear