1. Governance
July 9, 2019updated 04 Aug 2023 8:29am

If the new prime minister wants to help renters, they’ll need to think big

As a society we used to be able to promise that hard work pays off – but the depth and scale of the current housing crisis has rendered this contract void. Holding down a solid job is no longer enough to guarantee a home or any stability. In fact, new research by Shelter shows that across two-thirds of the country, private renting is now unaffordable for families on lower wages. 

Shelter analysed average private rents for two-bedroom homes in every local council area in England to assess whether they would be affordable to families in lower-paid jobs – with one adult working full-time and another part-time. By “lower-paid”, we’re still talking about dental nurses, mechanics and newly-qualified teachers – professional workers who by any metric should be able to afford an average home.

Shelter’s findings show that – excluding housing benefit – there are 218 council areas where local families earning a low wage would be forced to spend more than 30 per cent of their salary on rent. This is before essentials like food, bills and childcare, and it is leaving many families scraping by each month. It’s not right they are on the breadline because of forty years of failed housing policy.

The steep decline in social housing has left a growing number of families caught in a debilitating “rent-trap”, where despite working every hour they can, their only option is housing benefit. We’ve ended up in a perverse situation which necessitates paying out billions of pounds in taxpayer’s money to private landlords, just so that hard-working families can afford somewhere basic to live. 

In stark contrast to the pricey and unstable private rental market, social housing is affordable for working families on low wages everywhere – in every council area up and down the country.

It has become painfully clear to me, through my time on Shelter’s Social Housing Commission, that a new generation of social homes is desperately needed. It is the best way out of the current quagmire. Social housing is the proverbial “silver-bullet” to the housing emergency, and the only realistic alternative to private renting for millions of people. 

But we’re seeing a distinct lack of ambition from our would-be leaders to build the homes we actually need in this country. Amongst the many Brexit arguments, the Conservative leadership candidates have set out a few offers on housing, and Boris has talked up his record on “affordable” housing in the capital – but largely it’s just business as usual, and the usual rehash of past housing policies.

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We’ve seen vague commitments to increase the number of affordable homes to rent and buy, despite that term seeming to encompass an ever-widening array of options, most of which are not at all affordable to your typical working family. This issue is too crucial for too many voters for it simply to be answered with yet more boilerplate responses from politicians. If we are ever to meet the needs of the millions of people left behind by the housing crisis, we will need a Prime Minister that is prepared to be bold and think big. 

The housing crisis is something that affects people’s lives in the most fundamental way. It impacts their security, where their children go to school, whether they can afford to put food on the table. Yet solving it is still being treated as a nice-to-have.

The next Prime Minister should be putting the housing crisis at the forefront of their domestic agenda, recognising its political capital and the risks of inaction. These new figures, which show the depth of the affordability crisis we face, must be a wake-up call, and a reminder of the ticking time bomb that is the renters’ vote.

We know building more social housing is popular with voters: it enjoys a rare consensus across the political spectrum and even across the Brexit divide. So what are our politicians waiting for? 

What we need is a major social housing offer – a commitment to 3.1 million more social homes in 20 years. This would serve not just those in the greatest need, but all those currently locked out of the chance of a stable home. Only this can bring an end to the housing crisis.

Lord Jim O’Neill is a former Conservative Treasury Minister and a member of Shelter’s Social Housing Commission.

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