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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.