Britain’s last Labour government has often been criticised for the failure of its housing policies – and in terms of ensuring this country was building enough homes, it undeniably did drop the ball.
But it’s not quite true to say it had no housing policy whatsoever: it’s simply that it was focused on quality, not quantity. Its flagship housing programme was the 2001 pledge to ensure that all social housing met its “decent homes standard” – decent kitchens, bathrooms, generally not falling to bits – by 2010. To meet this goal, it spent billions – more than £37bn, at the last count – on improving public and quasi-public housing. Private housing, it was assumed would look after itself.
Today, housing charity Shelter has published a major report laying out its Living Home Standard – a sort of housing equivalent of the living wage, which defines the quality of home you should look for if you want a half-decent quality of life. Its headline finding is that 43 per cent of Britain’s population are living in sub-quality homes, which serves to bring home two big points:
1) The Labour government was right to think that quality mattered as much as quantity;
2) It was wrong to assume that private landlords would automatically ensure that their property was in a good state just because they owned it.
To compile the report, Shelter commissioned pollster Ipsos MORI to survey the public on what they imagined to be an acceptable standard for a home. They used five criteria: affordability, decent conditions, stability, space and neighbourhood.
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Some of these criteria are arguably begging the question slightly. We know that housing is expensive at the moment – that is, if not the entire problem, then a bloody big element of it. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, then, that if you judge “decent” housing based on its price, a significant minority of people (27 per cent, in fact) won’t meet your criteria.
If anything, in fact, that sounds low. My suspicion is that it’d be much higher, were it not that most people living in overpriced housing are owner-occupiers, so get to enjoy the capital appreciation rather than freaking out about rising rents.
Similarly, the private-rented sector has ballooned over the last two decades, and tenancies tend to be short term – so, if you view unstable housing as a problem, them a lot of people will be suffering from that, too. Some 10 per cent of people live in homes that fail on stability criteria.
None of this, however, makes the findings any less worrying. Nor, come to that, does the fact that the people most likely to be living in poor quality homes are exactly the ones you think they are. It’s twice as common among the 25-34 age group (58 per cent) as it is among pensioners (27 per cent). It affects relatively few people who own outright (20 percent), rather more who own with a mortgage (38 per cent) – and vast numbers of those who live in the private rented sector (69 per cent), which suggests that 20 years of policies that encouraged buy-to-let landlords into an under-regulated market might not have been such a good idea after all.
Oh, and when you break the results down geographically, the situation is obviously far worse in London, where 73 per cent of people live in sub-quality housing, than it is anywhere else.
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One result that is surprising: the proportion of poor quality homes in the private rented sector (69 per cent) isn’t really much worse than the proportion rented from local authorities (68 per cent) or housing associations (66 per cent). Which suggests that, six years after Labour left government, those Decent Homes aren’t looking so decent any more.
Building a load more housing will address some of these concerns – on affordability, security, and, perhaps, by relieving over-crowding, space. But it won’t magically improve the condition of homes that already exist. If we’re ever going to solve this crisis we need to invest in both quality and quantity.
Here’s one more infographic that Shelter produced to promote the report. Don’t eat it all at once.
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Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.