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Are more social housing homes the answer to Britain’s housing crisis?

Yesterday, The Guardian reported on Labour’s plan to set “aside £75bn over five years to fund the most dramatic increase in council home construction since the Second World War.” Broadly the plan is to build 100,000 council and 50,000 Housing Association social homes per year over the next five years. This is a headline policy amongst several housing measures set out in Labour’s manifesto, launched yesterday.

It is encouraging to see any political party seeking to address the housing crisis. We as housing lawyers on the front line know first-hand how devastating the housing situation is for individuals and their families. All too often recently the media has been reporting on the number of street homeless deaths – a tragic and senseless outcome to a housing crisis which has too long been ignored. All political parties should be turning their thoughts to how to resolve this crisis both in advance of the election and, more crucially, beyond.

So to what extent could the building of 750,000 social homes over the next five years address the housing crisis?

According to the government, a total of 84,740 households were in bed and breakfasts, hostels and other temporary accommodation as of March 2019, including 126,020 children. Counting the numbers of those street homeless is very difficult but reports suggest that there could be more than 12,000 people sleeping rough every night throughout Britain. Shelter estimated at the end of 2018 that there were around 320,000 homeless people including rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation.

These are staggering numbers. However, the number of housing units required to house all of those individuals is not so staggering. Even assuming an average household of 2 people, just 160,000 homes would be needed to house all of them.

It is not as simple as that of course. It is not just the homeless in need of social housing: there are those in unaffordable private rented properties, tenants living in overcrowded, unhygienic and dangerous accommodation and those at risk of violence or living with disrepair. All these people need moving but where to? Figures show that in 2017,  the number of new social homes had dropped by 97% since 2010 and that in 2018-2019 only 6,287 council homes were built across Britain. The failure to build coupled with the number of social homes lost through the right to buy (54,581 homes between 2012 and 2017) has meant that there are simply not enough homes for the people that need them.

All too often we, as housing lawyers, meet with clients who have been approved for a move to more suitable accommodation but who nonetheless languish in their old property for months or even years until somewhere else can be found. Usually, the only solution is to move into private rented accommodation where the rents are much higher and the tenancies less secure. They thereby enter into the perfect storm of high rents and benefit caps, delays and sanctions which often leads to the loss of many privately rented homes and thereafter, homelessness.

The unavailability of social homes is one of the root causes of the housing crisis. How ever bad things get for individuals, there is simply no option other than to remain in unfit accommodation, risk the private rented sector, sofa surf or at worst, to end up on the streets. There is just nowhere to go.

Looking beyond

Building more social housing is not the only solution – we must also address unfair benefits practices, unregulated private landlords, the scandal of empty properties and spiralling rents – but it is essential if we are to start seriously tackling the crisis in the UK. We hope that whoever finds themselves responsible for the welfare of the country and its citizens on 13 December 2019, takes note.