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25 September 2014

Politicians need to understand that housing is an essential utility, just like water

The housing market today is unbearable, and if Ed Miliband doesn’t get that, I suggest he signs up for a few more empathy lessons.

By Alex Hilton

There was a moment in Ed Miliband’s party conference speech this week when he drew on his memory of a poignant, emotional moment in his life. And as he recalled his evening vigil at a Watford A&E, I imagined him tear-eyed as he watched people of “different backgrounds” working together, “inspired by their teamwork” and “proud of our NHS”.

I’m certain that any patient that night would have been not-at-all inconvenienced by the sight of Ed standing in the corner, emoting at them and probably practising what he had learned from his empathy lessons. But they wouldn’t have thought it was normal.

Normal people in A&E are generally stressed – too worried about their injury or their loved one’s pain or the drunk bleeding man in handcuffs accompanied by four burly police officers to soak in the true joy and inspiration of diversity, teamwork and public service.

It’s not fair to criticize Ed for not being “normal” – he’s a politician after all so somewhat handicapped in that regard. But his lack of “normal” seems to be the foundation of the least exciting commitments I think I have ever heard from a putative Prime Minister.

I don’t see the growing army of the working poor marching on London to proclaim the utopia that will be marked by a minimum wage of £8 an hour by the year 2020. If you factor in 2 per cent annual inflation, it will be the equivalent of £7.51 and no one’s climbing out of poverty on that basis unless they can hold down five jobs at once.

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£2.5bn for the NHS sounds like a big commitment until you remember the NHS has an annual budget of £110bn so this is little better than a rounding error. This government has spent about £2.5bn “reforming” the NHS in recent years, so the Labour commitment is simply a return of the money drained from patient care by that pointless adventure. It’s certainly not a game-changer for the health of the nation or the survival of the NHS.

The goal on apprenticeships actually scares me. When my stepfather did an apprenticeship in the Fourties, he wasn’t paid well but afterwards he had a skilled trade and a reasonable expectation of a decent paid job for life. Today it means Poundland can pay you a scandalous £2.68 an hour rather than the minimum wage as long as you get some “training” and get thousands of pounds in government grants for exploiting you in this manner.

But as the director of a campaign for tenants’ rights, I was looking for the housing pledge. The meat of this was that by 2025 Ed will double the number of first-time buyers each year – because home ownership is a “very British dream”. My blood pressure reacted badly to this.

It’s true that 65 per cent of private renters want to own their own homes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want a lifetime of crippling debt so that they can prop up the house prices of an older generation. I’m terrified of help to buy, rent to buy, shared ownership and all the innovative schemes for helping people into massive debt when what they need and want is a home.

I wanted a commitment to a Secretary of State for Housing with a ministry holding the £1bn social housing budget and the £24bn Housing Benefit budget – the cost to the tax-payer of not having enough social housing. I wanted a new Housing Act to offer a fairer deal for tenants while making the regulatory regime simpler for landlords. I wanted a new squatter’s right to occupy empty homes, with protection for the owners of that property in terms of the maintenance and reclaim of that property if they are prepared to allow people to live there.

But most of all I wanted a recognition that private property developers are not and cannot under the laws of mathematics be the answer to the housing crisis. They simply make more money when there aren’t enough homes.

This crisis is real. Housing is a pressure cooker and people are living in squalid conditions and being milked for every drop of rent they can produce.

This situation is unbearable. The next parliament will either effect rapid movement towards a sensible housing market policy or I predict we will see the return of rent strikes and at a massive scale.

Politicians need to understand that housing is an essential utility, just as is water, and there would be riots if the water companies allowed faeces through the taps and simultaneously reduced supply so that prices would go up. This is what a free-market housing market looks like today and if Ed Miliband doesn’t get that, I suggest he signs up for a few more empathy lessons.

Alex Hilton is director of Generation Rent