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England hasn’t been building enough homes. Because of this prices are being pushed up and many people around the country are struggling to buy their own home or pay their rent.

An ageing population, a new group of baby boomers, growing numbers of single person households and migration within and between countries will put more pressure on our depleted supply.

Successive governments have repeatedly failed to tackle this problem. And according to the Social Market Foundation’s The Politics of Housing report*, the origins of these issues in England are so deep-rooted that to tackle them would need a radical change in government thinking and public perception, combined with proper political desire.

But at the moment, there appears to be no sign of change and little desire – and this is down to three crucial factors that over the last century have changed the political landscape.

Firstly, the nature of the housing problem has changed. In the post-war era there was poor housing stock and severe overcrowding in England, with new homes needed to replace cleared slums. Today, we need more housing to cope with rises in the number of households, a less visible problem that is easy to question and hard to explain.

Secondly, the way in which we house people who can’t afford private rents has changed dramatically. Rather than investing in social housing, the Government has gradually stepped back, cutting public spending for the funding of new homes, and helping people to pay their rent through housing benefit.

It has also pushed the private sector to do more. Between 1979 and 1997, a number of policies were designed to boost its role, with a hope that de-regulation would increase incentives and make the sector bigger and more responsive to demand.

Finally, there has been a focus of increasing homeownership. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people owning their homes, from 23% in 1918, to its peak of 71% in 2003 – but with a significant decline since then.

The combined impact of these factors is responsible for determining the political decisions being made around England’s housing market.

A less visible housing problem results in public apathy, with politicians less likely to be motivated to build to cope for future increases in households. The private sector is not delivering as hoped. Its response to higher prices is sluggish house building, while its answer to falling prices is to cut back on construction and wait for the market to pick up again.

With high levels of homeownership, a section of voters is created for whom buoyant house prices are crucial and policies designed to increase the amount of homes – that will stabilise or push down house prices – are unwelcome.

This puts more pressure on England’s housing supply, keeping the value of homes up. Then a home becomes not just a place to live, but an apparently secure investment that can be used in later life.

This has created a vicious cycle in which supply will never keep up with demand, wedging further apart two sections of society – people who own their home, and those who don’t – and shows the huge and complex battle the country faces.

All parties agree that we haven’t been building enough homes, but each has a different idea on how this is addressed. What the country needs is a single vision – a strategic and long-term plan that crosses political boundaries, where parties of the left and right show a joint desire to fix this once and for all.

Major transport projects like HS2 need cross-party support to ensure that election cycles don’t stop its progress. Housing needs this too. It is also long-term infrastructure where decisions made today will have an impact for the next 60 years or more. Cross-party bickering gets in the way of that.

But in order to get this started, England needs political leadership with the foresight to look decades into the future. Political leadership which understands that by tackling this housing crisis, the country will be healthier, more prosperous and more equal. And leadership with the diplomatic skills to bring all sides together for the good of the country.

So where is this leadership?

* The SMF’s report, The Politics of Housing, was commissioned by the National Housing Federation to guide its thinking around its Towards a Vision project, which considers what housing associations need to do over the next 20 years to adjust to what could be a dramatically different political and operational landscape.

David Orr is the Cheif Executive of the National Housing Federation.

Follow David on Twitter.


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