Housing is the source of Britain’s problems – but it could also be our salvation

Homeless men sleeping at a platform at the Pimlico Tube station
Eastbourne council said 49p in every pound it spent went on tackling homelessness - carstenbrandt/iStock Unreleased

Everybody is angry nowadays. Whether it’s bus drivers, the person serving you in the shop, or the doctor seeing you at a rare appointment. Even if they smile, under the surface they’re seething.

Strikes have become the norm. If you haven’t walked out yet, you’re probably thinking you’d like to.

But what is the source of this national rage?

I blame housing.

There isn’t enough of it, and what there is is too expensive to buy, too expensive to rent, too expensive to heat and too expensive to maintain.

There are very few people who are actually happy with their housing situation – those who are will probably be mortgage-free with a contingency budget to boot. The rest of us are just scrambling to get by and trying to keep the roof over our heads.

We live in an invisible, but very real, segregated society. We didn’t need an apartheid or some government ruling for this to happen; property prices sifted the wheat from the chaff. Those who can afford the nicer places get them, those who can’t, don’t. Gated communities are all over this country – except we didn’t need to erect the gates, just inflate the house prices.

There are social ramifications to the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots – and it’s not just the increase in social inequality, it’s also about our society. Lack of affordable housing is likely a factor in our declining birth rate – who can afford to have kids when the house prices are this high?

Society is not an amorphous thing that exists independent of us: it is us. Society is a system of interrelated parts that cannot function independently, and when one part changes, the whole changes. It’s not a case of “us” and “them”, but “we”. “We” have this problem.

Even if you’re one of the lucky haves, the have-nots will cost you.

There are over 1.2 million people waiting to be housed in social housing – a figure that grows year on year. It’s also made worse by the constant degradation of the current stock. Data shows that 21,638 social homes were either sold (18,881) or demolished (2,757) in 2021-22, while only 7,500 new homes were built for social rent, according to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). This represents a net loss of 14,100 socially rented homes. Over the past decade it brings the total number of social homes lost to 165,000 (between 2012-13 and 2021-22).

Debates about the housing crisis rage on. Councils are being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by trying to house the homeless in temporary and inadequate housing – at a cost estimated at £6.5bn per year, according to a report by UCL. At a Westminster meeting to discuss the crisis, Eastbourne council said 49p in every pound it spent went on tackling homelessness.

The costs of addressing the housing crisis may appear daunting, but if we were to approach tackling homelessness as a financial investment and understand the long-term benefits and potential savings of property as a path to economic prosperity, we can unlock a new way of thinking. Homelessness is a huge topic with many different factors, but most people with a safe roof over their heads can achieve amazing things.

The National Health Service was introduced because it was cheaper to have a service that kept people healthy and have a working, functional population than a country of sick people. We need this line of thinking again: we need a National Homes Service. It’s cheaper to build the homes than house the homeless. With adequate housing, people can access opportunities to enable them to be financially productive and add to economic growth.

But first we must tackle the idea that homelessness costs more than housing the homeless. It’s a key point raised by UCL’s Social and Affordable Housing Initiative report. The current government subsidy for social/affordable homes is £1bn, but the report proposes this should be gradually increased to £5bn a year over the next five years. That would enable the building of 72,000 additional social/affordable homes per year.

It is an eye-watering target but if achieved the researchers believe the investment could save the Government an estimated £1.5bn a year overall.

When we look at the scale of the problem, it is clear we need a big solution. If we are to flourish as a nation, we can no longer afford not to act.


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