Who can persuade the government not to follow a deficit reduction model that solved a debt crisis but left in its wake mass homelessness and an even deeper housing shortage? Speaking in the Commons this month, the Chancellor said “we need to look to Canada and their experiences in the early 1990s when they too faced a massive Budget deficit”.
True, the Liberal administration there turned a 9 per cent deficit into a surplus in just three years. But the cuts, which included slashing funding for affordable housing, had devastating consequences.
They brought homelessness — previously a marginal problem — into the mainstream, hitting families and older people for the first time and forcing the Canadian government to spend even more money in emergency funding. The country also faced a shortage of social housing where supply ground to a halt.
The experience shows how cuts to housing can damage the wider economy. So why is George Osborne looking to the same model to slash our deficit?
In next week’s emergency Budget, £610m in funding earmarked for new social and affordable homes is at risk. Coupled with the £150m of cuts announced in May, this would mean 12,625 fewer homes built per year and 19,000 job losses at a time of record unemployment.
Shelter analysis released earlier this week shows that for every pound chopped from public investment in new housing, the economy will take a hit of at least £3.50. Predicted cuts could cost the economy £2.7bn, and this couldn’t come at a worse time.
Housing doesn’t sit in isolation: cuts not only mean fewer homes for the 1.8 million households on waiting lists. They also bring the loss of jobs, skills and economic benefits that new homes provide.
Pulling funding quickly before the housebuilding industry has recovered would drag an industry of critical importance to its knees, and bring housebuilding to a standstill. Every year we fail to build, we sink deeper into a housing crisis, which will eventually become impossible to get out of.
Large-scale job losses would also cause a skills drain that we know, judging by the last recession, could take a decade to recover from. When housebuilding does pick up again, we won’t have the capacity or the expertise to build the homes we need. We owe it to future generations to continue investment so they are not saddled with this legacy.
Housing is one of the keys to economic recovery. More homes built means more jobs, more tax revenue and reduced welfare payments at a time when government is desperate to hack back the housing benefit bill.
It also acts as a catalyst for other markets and is the foundation on which many industries are built.
If the government is to make cuts, they must be intelligent cuts. Working closely with organisations such as Shelter will be critical — or we will all be paying the price.
Campbell Robb is the chief executive of Shelter.