Rather predictably, so far the general election campaign has been dominated by Brexit and a relatively tight group of domestic issues, with health pretty much at the top of the list. Housing has been much less prominent, despite it being so important to all of our lives. Whether it’s is the inaccessibility of the housing market to young people, the visibility of rough sleepers in many of our towns and cities, the insecurity of private rented homes or a lack of affordable options for older people, I would hazard a guess that there are few of us who think all of our family and friends are properly housed.
Indeed in a recent poll across the North of England commissioned by Homes for the North, an alliance of 17 of the largest housing associations, over six in ten respondents said that improving access to good quality affordable homes is as important as issues such as improving the NHS, policing and the economy. And that’s a message we want to get over to the main political parties and their parliamentary candidates – put simply, housing matters to your electorate.
But in what way? Listening to the people I come across – customers, colleagues and partners – there are three key issues which candidates need to think about over the coming weeks, and which need to be on the agenda of whoever forms the next Government.
First, the country still faces a deep affordable housing crisis. All the main parties agree that as a country, we need to be building at least 300,000 new homes a year, something we have failed to do for decades. This won’t happen without robust state intervention at national, regional and local level, backed by a major step-up in investment, in particular to provide subsidy to ensure that at least a third of new homes are truly affordable. Strong evidence suggests the price tag will be around £13bn a year, which pales in comparison to promised funding for transport infrastructure such as HS2, Crossrail and Northern Powerhouse Rail. We should think as housing as essential national infrastructure, key to the growth and prosperity of our country, as well as providing shelter, warmth and security to its citizens.
Second we need to see housing as part of the answer to relieving pressure on the health service, care homes and even our prisons. Specialist housing with support can promote independent living for diverse groups such as the elderly, people with learning disabilities, and those at risk of becoming homeless. And it can do this at a fraction of the cost of crisis services which pick up the pieces when it is too late. Yet investment in this type of supported housing has been dramatically eroded and remains under threat. It needs a National Strategy to End Homelessness to pull the various strands together and put it on a stable, well-funded, long-term footing.
And finally, we need to see low-income tenants properly supported to meet escalating housing costs through the benefit system. Universal Credit has become tainted, and at Riverside we can see how many of our tenants are struggling with rising rent arrears and an alarming reliance on support from foodbanks – in a recent survey four in ten of our tenants claiming UC had used foodbanks or other voluntary organisations in the past year. Many of these are people who have never fallen behind with their rent before, but have missed payments because of the time it takes for their benefit to come. We believe the answer is simple – there is no need to scrap UC, but there does need to be a focus on ending the 5 week wait for that crucial first payment.
If the parties campaigning in the election do address these issues, the poll suggests it’s a sure vote winner. Around six in ten respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported the provision of more quality affordable homes. They would certainly get my vote!