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Commons statement

Published 01 September 2023

Housing housing housing. ROOF’s exclusive survey of MPs shows this is by far the biggest constituency issue, above transport, education and health. Is government getting the message? By Bill Rashleigh

Come a third term, come a new set of Labour priorities. That was the pledge Tony Blair made when setting out his ‘bold and radical’ new agenda – a programme that would see housing propelled into the policy premier division. Announcing housing’s elevated new status, Mr Blair told MPs that it is ‘a coming issue’.

Cue backbench choruses of ‘what took you so long?’ Because if housing is still coming to Westminster, it arrived in MPs’ constituencies years ago. In a survey of MPs, conducted the week before recess, ROOF found that 79 per cent of the 98 respondents placed housing as the first or second most pressing constituency issue – rating it more important than health, education and transport.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the 58 per cent of MPs who put housing as the number one issue represented Labour areas; 13 were Lib Dem MPs, while none held Conservative seats. Only four of the MPs – three Labour and one Conservative – rated housing as the least salient issue.

Helen Clark, Labour MP for Peterborough, summed up the general mood: ‘Four out of five casework discussions in my constituency are about housing and when I go door-knocking, it’s all about housing. Unless you get proper housing you are not going to get proper health, education, law and order or economic prosperity. It all flows from housing.’

The message was the same across the country. Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn & St Pancras in north London, said: ‘I don’t subscribe to the view that people have left my area voluntarily. Ordinary hard-working people are being priced out by high rents and high prices. 30 years ago in Camden 265 people were homeless and 177 families were in temporary accommodation. Today the figures are 1,300 and 2,600. In the early 1970s Camden was building 3,473 new homes. Today that figure is nil. I see some connection.’

In Luton, the housing shortage has reached chronic proportions, said Liberal Democrat MP Kelvin Hopkins. ‘Quite simply we’ve run out of building land. The council has said that if they used every square inch of possible land inside the borough, we could only build 1,500 new homes. The problem is that we’ve got 7,000 homeless families waiting. It’s a dreadful situation.’

Nor was there respite in other UK nations. In Cardiff, David Thomas, city councillor and researcher for Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan, said: ‘The housing stock is being destroyed and we’re losing about 400 homes a year through right to buy.’ While Paul Tyler, Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall said: ‘We’ve got the worst affordability gap in the country because of the artificial housing market. We’ve now got more second homes than council houses, and that’s a horrendous situation.’

Only in Huddersfield, Wokingham, Newport West and Staffordshire Moorlands was housing deemed not to be a problem. Everywhere else, MPs reported meltdown: 4,000 empty homes in Burnley – the biggest percentage in any local authority; more people waiting for housing in Portsmouth than at anytime during the last 50 years; 21,000 unoccupied private sector homes in Bolton – 5,000 of which are irredeemably unfit to live in.

Proclamations that government has cottoned on to the problem – and will do something about it – have been welcomed by MPs. But suspicions linger that the message emanating from Westminster is missing the main issue. In announcing Labour’s new five-year housing strategy, Mr Blair said the aim would be to help the ‘many young people [who] have trouble buying their first home’.

Those in particular need, he said, were young people in London looking to claw their way on to the property ladder. ‘It is very, very tough for first-time buyers in London,’ he said.

Some MPs, however, see this renewed interest in housing as little more than a cynical attempt to win over the growing army of eligible young voters in the capital. ‘This government is as Tory as the Tories were. We don’t just need properties for young executives on their way up, we need decent two or three-bedroom homes for families to live in where they can enjoy their lives,’ said Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South.

Helen Clark said: ‘Elsewhere people are living in horrible overcrowded situations. In one situation in my constituency there was a family of 10 living in a three-bedroom house with a son of 19 living in a shed at the end of the garden.’

As part of the survey, ROOF asked MPs what the most pressing housing problem was in their constituency, and nearly half of the 70 who answered this question pointed to the lack of homes local people can afford to rent. Close behind was a lack of homes local people could afford to buy.

The survey also asked what would be the best solution to the problem of a lack of affordable housing. Again, just under half (34) of the 70 MPs who answered this question suggested more publicly-funded traditional rented homes, while 29 chose more publicly-subsidised housing under shared ownership.

What also emerged from the survey was the almost universal loathing of the right to buy. Cross party consensus was that any shake-up of housing must start with a ceremonial scrapping of this unpopular policy. MPs from areas as diverse as Reading, Chesterfield, Cornwall and Cardiff all said right to buy had exacerbated housing problems in their constituencies.

Paul Tyler said North Cornwall had been ‘devastated by indiscriminate use’ of right to buy, while Paul Holmes, Labour MP for Chesterfield, anticipates losing a further 2,000 homes over the next five years to right to buy. According to some analysts, the difference of opinion over what the government sees as the priority and what backbench MPs view as the main issues reflects a degree of tension between the two camps. ‘For some Labour MPs their hardcore of support is from people in social housing, and some backbench MPs are split between doing more for their core support, [unlike] the government which is a bit more interested in middle England issues,’ said Sam Lister, policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

Criticism has also been levelled that the government is just paying lip service to housing by not employing any of its big guns to push through the issues in Westminster. ‘It’s been a long time since there was a cabinet minister with a strong housing background. Normally it’s the job of the lowest grunt on the ladder,’ said one disillusioned Labour MP.

There were also accusations that the government has been slow to tackle housing because of uncertainty over where the voting public – particularly those with nimby tendencies – stood on housing issues. But with affordability now a mainstream issue, the government has been given a catchall banner under which it can safely unveil a new strategy. Liz Phelps, at Citizens Advice believes the results of the ROOF survey show that housing is still ‘punching well below its weight’.

But a genuine momentum is starting to build up, says Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon and former housing minister David Curry: ‘Housing was an area where a few MPs fought a slightly lonely campaign because it just wasn’t in the premier division – it was the Hartlepool United of the political world. But over the past few years it has gone screaming up the agenda, not because there’s been a great rush of social conscience among MPs, but because of the issue of affordability. That is the unique selling point that has taken housing up the agenda.’

Combined with other political hot topics like population movement, house price inflation, the communities plan and immigration, there is now a real cause for optimism, says Mark Titterington, a partner at the lobbying group Lawson, Lucas, Mendelsohn. ‘Housing at the moment is probably higher than any other single issue in Westminster.’ The difficulty will be in keeping it centre stage.

Additional reporting by Melanie Delargy