As we enter the party conference season, here’s what Shelter hopes will be the political parties’ leaders’ speeches. If the leaders make the right commitments now it will help shape their parties’ final election offer to those at the sharp end of our housing crisis – families stuck renting, waiting for years in temporary accommodation, struggling to buy a home or finding it difficult to keep up with their rent or mortgage. Housing has consistently ranked as a top 5 voter issue for months – and politicians are beginning to take note.
So what should the party leaders be proposing?
First, and most importantly: we want to hear every party commit to credible plans to build many more homes in every tenure – especially homes for social rent and for part-buy, part-rent. Successive governments have failed to build the homes we need – and that failure has had far-reaching consequences. Overcrowding, poor conditions, endemic instability, and homelessness: every day our advisers see the real life consequences of the lack of decent, affordable homes. In recent years, party conference speeches have often featured positive aspirations about building more: now we need firm plans for making it happen.
Earlier this year in partnership with KPMG we published a report, ‘Building the homes we need’ which provides a blueprint for the next government to sustainably increase the rate of home building. Sadly there’s no silver bullet: we need a programme of investment and reforms to tackle the high cost of land, create a diverse and sustainable house building industry, drive more long term investment and devolve power and budgets to those cities that want to grow.
But what more can we do to fix our housing crisis?
The only way we’ll solve the housing crisis for good is by building more affordable homes. But for many families the problem is holding onto their home right now. As we highlighted last month millions of working families are having to cut back on essentials like food to help pay for their home. Lots of families wouldn’t be able to cope with a financial shock – like a fall in their income, or an unexpected bill. High housing costs coupled with cuts to the housing safety net (by which Shelter means housing benefit, access to social housing, homelessness legislation and advice services) have created a dangerous situation in which an unexpected financial shock like losing your job or falling ill can leave people at risk of losing their home. Every year Shelter helps thousands of families in just this situation – and we know that only a strong public safety net can stop them becoming homeless. And if the worst happens and families do lose their home, government help is crucial to help them get back on their feet and find a new home.
So what do we want to hear from politicians to make our safety net stronger?
Firstly, there needs to be adequate support to prevent families being at risk of homelessness in the first place. That means that help to meet housing costs (housing benefit / local housing allowance) must better reflect actual rents. The only sustainable way to reduce the total housing benefit bill is to provide more, lower cost social rented homes: reducing housing benefit rates without tackling the shortage of homes will only push more people into arrears and potential homelessness – which will end up costing the public purse more. Shelter is also opposed to further restrictions on who can get housing benefit. In particular, we are concerned about rumours that the support available for under-25s might be reduced – not everyone has parents who can house them if they become ill or lose their job. And we don’t want to see further proposals to cut help for those who rent and are out of work – because losing your job shouldn’t mean losing your home, and getting back into work is so much harder if you’re homeless. And of course we would like to see an end to the bedroom tax, which penalises social tenants for having a spare bedroom even if there is no smaller accommodation for them to move into.
If the worst does happen, homeless families need somewhere affordable to stay until they get back on their feet. That’s why temporary accommodation should be exempt from the benefit cap, enabling local councils to adequately house homeless families. The housing crisis, coupled with an inadequate safety net mean this support is now under threat.
We’re also keen that the Support for Mortgage Interest scheme carries on – it’s far from perfect but with interest rates widely expected to rise and this support due to be reduced in March 2016, it needs to be extended to stop more families from losing their home.
Of course all parties will be keen to deal with what the public see as the failings of the current housing safety net. Our own research, published in June, shows that the majority of the public see the housing safety net as an essential part of a civilised society, but also that many worry that some people are unjustifiably receiving support, or that the system is failing to incentivise work. That’s why Shelter is working to put forward a vision of a future safety net – one which addresses those underlying concerns and is able to win wide public support, but which also gives people enough help to pay their rent or mortgage if something goes wrong.
Last but not least, what should politicians offer England’s nine million private renters?
Politicians should think about how renting needs to change, now that it’s providing a home to millions of people for the long-term. There are now 1.3m families with children living in private rented homes – and it’s clear that renting is no longer a stepping stone to something better, as people find themselves priced out of ownership and unable to get a council or housing association home.
Shelter has long campaigned to fix private renting, and it’s great to see politicians of all parties are now starting to come up with policies to help renters. As the election gets closer, renters will want to know that what concrete improvements and increased rights the different parties will offer them.
We’ve worked tirelessly to get more local councils to root out rogue landlords over years. This government has offered councils support and funding – which we’d like to see continue.
But the key reform we need is to bring in longer tenancies with predictable rents – where rents can’t rise faster than a pre-agreed rate, such as inflation. Two years ago Shelter first proposed a new model of renting, our Stable Rental Contract. It showed how we can end short term contracts and unpredictable rent increases which force families to leave their homes at just two months’ notice. The Stable Rental Contract offers renters five year tenancies, with limits to prevent unexpected rent hikes during that period.
Since 2013, we’ve called for a ban on letting agency fees like the one in Scotland, and we’re keen to see further regulation to deal with poor practice from letting agents across the board. We also called for the regulation covering estate agents to be extended to letting agents. This would require letting agents to have client money protection and professional indemnity insurance, providing far greater protection for both landlords and renters.
In recent months we’ve called for an end to revenge evictions to ensure that renters do not lose their home when they complain about poor conditions. Currently, the fear of complaining means that too many renters continue to live in unacceptable conditions or are forced to leave their home without repairs ever being made.
Right now, speechwriters are putting the final touches to their bosses’ speeches for the party conferences. Housing is steadily rising in political importance, but with 1 in 4 voters still unsure about which party is the strongest on housing, there is still room for all politicians to seize this ground. Let’s hope those speechwriters are helping their party leaders set out a great offer for all those hit hard by Britain’s housing crisis.