Running to Stand Still

Since leaving political life Michael Portillo has made a name for himself as a TV train traveller. Last week however he flirted with political issues once more, presenting a TV documentary about the UK’s housing crisis, asking: who’s to blame?

Those with long memories might recall that Portillo was a local government minister under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, overseeing the transfer of hundreds of thousands of council housing into the private sector, under the ‘right to buy’ scheme. Since 1980 about 1.9 million council homes have been sold into private hands. That year there were 6.5 million council homes; today there are just 2 million. The problem, he said, wasn’t that they were sold, but “why haven’t we done more to replace them?” A more pressing question might be: who is going to build them?

There are just a few days left for people to make suggestions as to how the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the document that sets out the Government’s planning policies for England – might be amended; 10 May is the deadline to receive fresh thoughts.

The ‘right to buy’ policy is being abolished in Wales, and perhaps it is time to do the same in England. After all, it makes little sense for local and national government to spend public money on a social good, only to see the newly built homes pass into private hands. The banking crisis saw private losses socialised in the name of keeping society afloat; is the housing crisis less important?

There are many organisations agitating for a radical reform of England’s housing – among them Shelter, one of 3SC’s partners in Purple Futures, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. The housing crisis, and how it is tackled, will be one of the defining issues for the next general election, currently scheduled for 2022.

In truth, there is unlikely to be a single silver bullet, such is the array of associated issues. The influx of foreign cash has helped push up prices in certain centres, London especially; the sale of much of England’s public housing stock to private hands has boosted the power of private renters; the law permits short-term leases, creating uncertainty and insecurity for renters; changing demographics such as an aging population creates its own uncertainties as to the future housing needs; private sector builders can determine where, when, and how much housing they provide; and the strapped coffers of local councils leave little scope for council housing builds, even if the will is there. On top of which is the fact that there are so many demands from so many different sectors – transport, the NHS, crime, Brexit negotiations…

The greatest motivator for action will be self-interest. Either this government will come up with an action plan to solve the crisis, or someone else will. Meanwhile we’re all in this apparently endless phase of running to stand still.