Housing

I was watching an edition of ‘Look East’ recently and there was an item on homelessness, telling us of the big increase in the numbers of homeless people in Lynn, Norwich and Cambridge. They were mainly young people, some were lucky enough to get a bed in the YMCA but the demand exceeded the number of beds available and these youngsters were sleeping in shop doorways. With the cold weather this winter it must be very difficult for them to keep warm and they are very vulnerable to assault of different kinds.
The next item in the programme was dealing with an appeal for cash to create more bird sanctuary wetlands at Cawston marsh. One million is required and this is to be matched by another million from a charitable trust. They had launched the appeal quite recently and already had reached £300,000. It caused me to wonder what sort of society we are living in that puts so much value on creating more wetlands (surely we have enough in Norfolk) when young people are having to sleep in shop doorways.
Some time ago I wrote a couple of articles on Bad Government, highlighting what I regarded as serious mistakes made by our governments in the last forty years or so. The current housing situation is another result of mistakes and failures by successive governments, starting with Maggie Thatcher’s decision to sell off council houses, a policy pursued by following governments, the consequences of this policy when combined with a ban on councils building replacements were easily predictable. Maggie’s dream was to create a nation of house owners (and never mind those who were unable to achieve that). This policy has been pursued by following governments regardless of the mounting evidence that it was not working. Council houses provided the supply of affordable houses from the beginning of the last century, and even more importantly in the aftermath of the war.
The building of new houses by the private sector has been well short of what is required, the principal reason for that is the high price of land, in turn that is due to the difficulty in obtaining planning consent, largely due to the failure of politicians to deal with nimbyism for fear of being unpopular with those that are sitting comfortably. We now have a serious housing shortage, exacerbated by the inflow of immigrants – another nettle that our politicians have been too slow to tackle. The high price of building land is a crime when the area of land that is not built on is so large in comparison with the area that is built on. The high price of houses has encouraged those with sufficient wealth to invest in property to sell on or to rent resulting in an upward spiral of prices and rents. It is ridiculous verging on criminal for a government to sit on its hands whist this has been going on and we have reached the stage where house prices and rents are getting beyond the point where those on the average wage can afford to pay them. Their housing now represents such a high proportion of their income that they are driven to living in poverty. The whole situation has been worsened further, by financial attacks on the poor such as cuts in housing benefits, bedroom tax, cuts to local councils etc. It is scandalous that at a time of well recognized housing shortage landlords should be permitted to keep squeezing up rents to the point where families with both parents working are barely left with enough to live on after the rent has been paid. We had a very severe housing shortage in the post war period and the government of the day tackled it with drive and determination, they got on with building on a grand scale and clamped down on any profiteering by landlords. Governments in recent years have wrung their hands and claimed that something must be done, then they made their big decision “I know what we will do, we will set a target.” (Their solution to most problems)
At last this government has admitted that the housing market is broken and seem to have realized that they have to do something more than set a target, so far that something is to produce a ‘white paper’. Sadly what is proposed therein is not enough to anywhere near solve the problems. It does not propose a large programme of council house building but talks about building on brown field sites, there are nowhere near enough of these to do more than scratch the surface of the problem, and brown field sites are more expensive than green field sites so they will not provide cheaper housing. It would be better to turn brown sites into green sites and make the towns nicer places to live. They talk of adding more houses to the perimeters of villages and towns, but to add more houses to market towns such as Downham puts strains on the centre of the town that were never intended, the roads, parking, medical services and other services all get strained to breaking point and these towns become less pleasant places. They talk glibly about building more houses but developers will only build houses if they can sell them and with the current prices of building land the house prices will remain too high for many. It seems to me that the only way to solve the problem on the scale that is required is by the government compulsorily purchasing virgin land at a price that is associated with no planning approval and building new towns on a grand scale, similar to that of the 1950s, and, as in the 1950s, the lower price of the land enabled them to fix rents at an affordable level, the option to buy should be there but this should be at the level of the market for the area outside the new town. We lived in Harlow in the 1950s and that was the situation there except that there were some larger detached houses for which the rent was fixed at the market rate. This seemed to work well, we were there for a while, but when we were ready to buy we moved away leaving an opportunity for another family to rent. The government has talked about new towns so for goodness sake – get on with it.
Ron Watts

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