Public fears over housing grow

Nearly one in five of adults polled said they always or often struggle to pay their rent or mortgage, reports Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON.

Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of UNISON, Britain’s biggest public sector trade union with more than 1.3 million members

A YouGov poll (pdf) published by the new Housing Voice campaign, launched last week in the House of Commons, highlights the major disconnect between wages and housing costs, and the real need for affordable housing to come back up the political agenda.

Nearly one in five of adults polled said they always or often struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. A further one in four (23 per cent) sometimes struggle to meet their housing costs. This is hardly surprising given respondents under forty said housing costs ate up a staggering 40 per cent of their wages.

And the worry is that things are only going to get worse. As wage freezes, pay cuts and job losses hit home, rents, along with the wider cost of living, are rising across the country (pdf).

The average market rent in the south east is nearly £200 per week – well over half the average pay of a woman working in the public sector (£385). To make matters worse, because of spending cuts, the number of new social and affordable homes to rent is shrinking.

Buying a house is getting harder too. Although house prices have dropped back slightly in some places, they remain completely beyond those on low and ordinary incomes. The average wage stands at £21,000 a year, but the average cost of a house more that ten times that amount at £215,000 (pdf).

Whilst the results of the poll show that housing is a huge issue for many people, it also reveals the public are unclear about how much this is an issue for the government to tackle. This is something those who represent people on low incomes and housing campaigners have to address if we are going to make a difference.

This point is well demonstrated by the responses to two further questions in our survey. In the first question, people say affordable housing is more of an issue for them and their families than education and crime; but in the second, they say education and crime should be higher priorities for the government than affordable housing.

We can trace the roots of the de-politicisation of housing back to Margaret Thatcher, who was hell-bent on taking housing out of politics.

Speaking in the 1970s she said:

“After 60 years of increasing state intervention in housing, we are reaching a situation where a large proportion of the labour force, and possibly a majority of manual workers, are treated as though they are unable to house themselves without state assistance.

“This seems economic absurdity. We must have as our prime objective a big increase in home ownership.”

And the roots of the crisis we face today lie here too.

Under Thatcher, the “right to buy” led to hundreds and thousands of council houses being sold off at knock-down prices. This would have been sustainable if the income raised had been re-invested in new homes. It was not.

The government pulled out of its housing responsibilities promoting a ‘leave it all to the market’ approach; however, this exposes people to the dangers of being priced out of housing altogether. What is more, councils did not have the same incentive to build as they could no longer be sure of keeping their housing stock.

The poll, however, showed broad consensus across people of different political persuasions for action on housing. Among the options favoured are taxing bank bonuses to pay for new social homes, and local authorities being required to take measures to ensure there is housing available that matches up to wages. The responses also revealed that most people want council homes back on the agenda – and showed support for local authorities being required to build homes available for rent.

In this context the mission for Housing Voice, the Affordable Homes Alliance, is clear: getting housing back on the agenda as a political issue, convincing people they have a right to a decent home – with help from central and local government if they need it.

Housing Voice was launched at the House of Commons on June 29th. The National Housing Federation, Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group, UNISON, shadow housing minister Alison Seabeck MP and Stephen Gilbert MP took part in the launch. The campaign is chaired by Lord Whitty.

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