Saturday, 30 January 2010

Housing and Equality

Given my previous posts on the disastrous effects of wealth and income gaps on our society, I can hardly let the publication of the latest major report on inequality go by without a mention. Its headline finding is that the top 10% of wealth-owners in the UK are 100 times richer than the bottom 10%. While this is perhaps unsurprising, it should not be anything less than shocking. A society with such levels of inequality cannot avoid dysfunction. That is why I have become one of the first Parliamentary candidates to sign the Equality Pledge, the opening initiative by OneSociety and the Equality Trust to influence the forthcoming General Election. I hope many more sign in the coming days and weeks!

One of the major inequalities in our society is, of course, in the housing sector. With some people owning copious and expensive amounts of property, and most others unable to get anywhere near a secure tenancy in an affordable home, the playing field is painfully skewed. It's an area that I've always felt strongly about - and for that reason, I'm glad to be able to announce that I have recently been named as the Green Party's new national spokesperson on housing.

Those who are interested in lots of detail can always look at the full list of Green Party Housing Policies - but for those who want some reasons why we desperately need new and progressive thinking in this area, perhaps a few facts might help.

- There are still 2.5 million Council tenants throughout the UK.

- However, there are around 5 million people currently on council housing waiting lists.

- There are still almost 100,000 people in temporary accomodation, which is often totally unsuitable for their needs.

- 485,000 social homes have been sold over the past 10 years through Right To Buy.

- £141 million is being spent on new council housing this year. Sounds good - but it equates to only 2,000 homes.

- There are approximately 750,000 empty properties in the UK.

The Green Party is already doing a lot of work on housing issues - both in terms of ensuring that new and retrofitted properties meet stringent energy efficiency and fuel poverty standards, and in ensuring that ordinary people can afford to live in excellent properties in the first place. As this report on London's affordable housing crisis from the office of Jenny Jones AM illustrates, there is a very very long way to go on these issues. As the report explains, referring particularly to London but applying more generally to the country as a whole:

1. There has been a massive loss of social rented homes. Right to buy sales have far outstripped the building of new social rented homes, despite growing demand and a slightly improved delivery of social homes in recent years. This has led to the waiting list in London almost doubling within a decade.

2. The cost of buying a home has risen twice as fast as incomes. It now costs eleven times the average income to buy a home in London, putting home ownership far beyond the means of most households.

3. New housing delivery hasn’t met housing needs. House building has completely failed to slow the rising affordability gap in housing. In 2009 London only managed to build a little over half of the housing we needed.

I would say that with the financial crisis and recession, the delivery mechanism for affordable housing (building private sector housing for sale at market rates and subsidising social housing with the profits) has broken down. I would say that, except it is difficult for something that didn't work in the first place to break down. 'Affordable' housing has rarely been anything of the sort over the last decade. It is crucial that, in the next ten years, we ensure a great deal more housing that is affordable, well-built, and democratically controlled.

More on this subject anon. For now, if you are interested in getting involved, you could do a lot worse than to check out the Defend Council Housing website, or the London Coalition Against Poverty.

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