Opening the post

It’s always nice to receive post at this time of year. So you can imagine our delight at Shelter Towers when we received a letter from the new Housing Minister, Kris Hopkins.  The Minister was replying to our Chief Executive’s open letter to him a little while back.

It was great to see that the Minister wants to work more closely with Shelter – just as we want to work more closely with him.  In his opening paragraph he mentions two of our key priorities as his own: to “safeguard the most vulnerable in our society” and to “get Britain building”.

In fact, throughout his letter it’s clear that the Minister understands what the major problems are that both cause, and stem from, our country’s massive housing crisis.

It’s when he starts talking about how to tackle these problems, though, that we believe the Minister needs to be bolder.  It’s also where it would appear that his ‘open letter’ isn’t quite as open as we might like.

Mr Hopkins rightly says that we need “to maintain the strong safety net” which is in place for people at risk of homelessness.  He doesn’t say, though, that this safety net has already got weaker since this Government came to power.  With cuts to Housing Benefit and Legal Aid, it is now more likely than it was in 2010 that losing your job could lead to losing your home.

The Minister also points out that homelessness is lower than it used to be.  But what he neglects to mention, and what our graph shows, is that it has risen notably over the last few years.

And wholly absent from his letter is any reference to the fact that 80,000 children will wake up homeless this Christmas.

Yes, the previous Government could – and should – have done better.  But that is no excuse for the current Government not to do more.  Mr Hopkins should be looking at how to strengthen the safety net for those who fall on hard times.  With Shelter receiving record numbers of calls to our helpline last year, it’s clear that there is much, much more to be done.

In other parts of the Minister’s letter, there is more hope.  He says he wants to do more to support “the millions renting homes privately”, and makes specific reference to cracking down on rogue landlords.  This is something Shelter has campaigned on for a long time, and it’s encouraging to see it on the Minister’s list of priorities.  Only recently, his department made clear that they wanted to do more to encourage family-friendly tenancies – much like our proposals for a Stable Rental Contract.  That’s a small but very important step in the right direction, and we look forward to working with the Minister and his team on making those tenancies a reality.

Of course, many of these problems – from the rise of rogue landlords, to families losing the roof over their heads altogether – stem from the fact that there is a massive housing shortage in this country.  Mr Hopkins gets this. “It’s clear,” he says, “we need to build more homes”. Unfortunately, he again doesn’t mention the fact that in June 2010 the Coalition Government cut the affordable housing budget by 60%.  Or the fact that levels of housebuilding are currently at historic lows.

The Minister and his Government need to raise their ambition around housebuilding considerably.  We need 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand.  And new homes need to be genuinely affordable to people on average wages.  That’s why risking inflating prices through a Government-backed mortgage scheme like Help to Buy is not the answer.  It’s not even just putting off a difficult decision for another day – it’s actively making things worse.  And there are signs that people are wise to it: 66% of people say they don’t want to see house prices rise any more – they want to see them fall or stay the same.

As our Chief Executive says, Kris Hopkins has the best job in government.  With that in mind, it’s great that we’ve started with an open exchange of letters setting out what we both think the challenges are.  There’s real agreement there.  But genuine openness also means being honest with each other about the scale of those challenges.  And, once we’ve accepted the scale of them, being really ambitious and determined to deliver the change that’s needed to address them once and for all.

Mr Hopkins has got the questions right.  And we at Shelter are on hand to help him make sure he gets the answers right too.