At a time when it is impossible to ignore the evidence of one’s own eyes about the UK housing crisis, Labour has made housing a key theme in its manifesto, promising to build 100,000 council homes and 50,000 social homes each year, as well as a charter for private renters. The party views housing as a means of providing shelter and building community, and describes tackling homelessness as a moral mission.
The dearth of affordable rented housing in England was laid bare last month. Official figures revealed a mere 37,825 new homes built to be let at discounted rents in 2018, despite a national housing waiting list of more than 1.1 million households.
The Green party, whose housing policy focuses on energy efficiency and developments that cut down on car use, pledges 100,000 new social homes, while the Liberal Democrats promise to build 300,000 houses a year, including 100,000 new homes for social rent, to end rough sleeping within five years and to provide more financial support for councils to tackle homelessness.
Plaid Cymru promises to build 20,000 “green” social houses (last year, just 5,777 new houses were built in Wales). The SNP manifesto contains no housing policy, other than pledging that care leavers will be exempt from the shared accommodation rate for housing benefit. The party has separately set a target to build at least 50,000 new affordable homes, of which 35,000 will be for social rent.
In contrast, Conservative housing policy remains focused on supporting private landlords and homebuyers. This is despite promises to end the benefit freeze, publish a social housing white paper, renew the national affordable housing programme and end rough sleeping.
And the chancellor, Sajid Javid, tries to claim that homelessness has reduced under the Tories, despite all the evidence that since the Conservatives took office in 2010, statutory homelessness has risen by 36%, fuelled by welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and cuts to wider public services. According to the National Housing Federation, more than nine in 10 homes for private rent (94%) are too expensive for people on housing benefit. Shockingly, two-thirds of these families (65%) are in work. The housing charity Shelter estimates that at least 320,000 people across Britain are without a permanent home. Almost 5,000 are sleeping rough in England (although this is likely to be a huge underestimate because of the way official figures are collected) and a shocking 726 people died homeless in England and Wales in 2018 (a 22% rise from 2017).
Labour is proposing £800m to put more beds into hostels and to improve their facilities, but its plans lack detail on the complexity of tackling homelessness. Instead, there are well-meant pledges, like the promise by Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, to give everyone in the city a bed for the night, rather than tackling the underlying causes of homelessness.