Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 5th October 2016

Recently government figures reveal homelessness at its highest in a decade, sadly it’s no surprise. Providing temporary housing is straining already tight council budgets but the true cost is social: lives disrupted, jobs risked, families divided.

Someone is legally ‘homeless’ if they’ve no home available to occupy. Rough sleepers have the most complex needs but are the tip of the homelessness iceberg.

For decades UK housebuilding hasn’t keep pace with the shift toward smaller households and migration, both from other parts of the UK and abroad. Limited supply and growing demand means higher housing costs and increasing numbers sharing properties much later in life. The Government’s decision to play a more direct housebuilding role is a step forwards but the numbers proposed remain tiny compared to the problem.

Solving the UK’s housing crisis means undoing the mistakes which created it, beginning with untying councils’ hands. Over the latter half of the twentieth century councils were the UK’s biggest housebuilders. Councils delivered the numbers, properties were affordable and built in the right places, meaning people could find a house in the community they were raised in.

Right-to-Buy tore the funding model apart and council housebuilding went into freefall. Selling taxpayer-financed properties at major discounts was a good deal for the buyer, but we’re paying the price now. The market value of council properties lost in Crawley alone is £600m, many are now second homes and council housing shortages mean taxpayers are all-too-often paying housing benefit at full market rate for properties they sold at a discount.

Two proposals at Labour Conference give cause for hope. First, ending Right-to-Buy, we can’t afford to sell units for less than they cost to build. Second, allowing councils to borrow against their rental stream, enabling a guaranteed income source to be leveraged in accessing the necessary finance to build at scale. Councils can built the properties we need, saving Government a fortune in housing benefit in the process.

There’s a long road ahead to make housing affordable again, but if the Government is willing to work with councils we can shave years off the process.

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