In my critique of Tim Farron’s crowd-pleasing William Beveridge Memorial Lecture I queried whether his concentration on housing was a political winner (given the polls repeatedly say in all sorts of different ways that it’s a second-tier issue for the public rather than a top-tier one) and whether his policy ideas would deliver the scale of his ambitions:
On housing Farron said many things the audience liked to hear – but were also remarkably similar to what Nick Clegg said on the same subject in his William Beveridge Memorial Lecture back in 2012.
That the same sort of calls are being made two years on in the same lecture neatly illustrates how calling for a major boost in house building have been commonplace for years, yet such calls so far have both failed in substance (the big boost hasn’t happened) and failed in presentation (the public continues to rate housing fairly low in the list of issues most important in deciding who to vote for in an election).
A speech that aimed higher and succeeded would have shown an understanding of those twin previous failures and presented a way of overcoming them.
As part of some good natured and open responses to my points, Tim Farron pointed to a speech he’d given earlier in the year that set out his housing approach in more detail. This speech, to the Centre for Social Justice, I’ve reprinted below.
Reading through it, especially the opening, it’s clear that he has a real passion for the subject and an ability to make a personal and moving case for the importance of housing as an issue.
Tim Farron takes a mixed approach to private renting, one which far too often for my taste treats it as necessarily inferior to owning – an attitude which isn’t shared in other countries. Indeed, if you look at the countries in Europe with high or low owner occupancy rates, it’s those with low owner occupancy rates that look much the more economically successful.
We should see private renting as an option that suits some people and could suit far more if we make it a better option through improved conditions, tougher action on rogue landlords and the like.
Though Tim Farron supports such action, and has some good ideas on cutting the administrative costs and improving the safety of private renting, his language often slips into treating private renting as second class, something which is regrettably a common approach amongst many housing campaigners.
He does touch on tangentially two of the other housing factors that usually get neglected. One is the social cost to people of moving to cheaper property. Especially in London and the South East an answer to high housing costs is to move to another part of the country. What gets a one bedroom flat in an okay part of Inner London can buy you a multi-bedroom house in a salubrious area in many other parts of the country.
Encouraging a geographically more balanced economy (which Tim does talk about) will help tap into this way of relieving housing pressures, though I’d also like to see more discussion of what further policy help can be provided, such as providing better help to low-income households who wish to move in search of better employment prospects or lower living costs.
The other often neglected factor is the falling average household size. In 1961 the average household size was 3.0 and it’s now nearly a quarter lower at 2.3. Or to put it another way, if households were to return to that 1961 average, this would free up 23% of homes. Of course that’s not going to happen overnight, but the calculation shows just how much pressure has been added to the housing market by falling household size.
The Spare Room Subsidy/Bedroom Tax has been a very cack-handed attempt to tackle part of this issue, but it shouldn’t veto any other thought on it. Especially given the potential social and health benefits of having fewer older people living on their own. Again, it would be good to see more discussion on policies to do this.
Turning to what Tim Farron does talk about, this speech does answer one of those earlier queries of mine. He has a good analysis on how the sorts of people that are attracted to local government are those for whom housing is generally a least pressing issue – and hence their reluctance to grant planning applications and seek out imaginative locations – and also good ideas on how to overcome that.
But his arguments on why housing is important to voters don’t overcome the countervailing evidence and worthy though the idea of freeing up Housing Associations is, is that sort of policy really enough to see housebuilding hit a level never seen before in the UK (once you factor in how in the past housebuilding levels were inflated by large-scale slum clearing, something that thankfully does not need repeating)?
There’s still a lot to do to turn the desire to improving housing into a plausible policy and an effective vote winner.
Here is Tim Farron’s housing speech to the Centre for Social Justice in full:
I got involved in politics by accident, it nearly didn’t happen. I was 14, and I was watching something on BBC2, probably the Young Ones, or it could have been Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Either way, whatever it was finished, it was a school night, I should have gone to bed but I couldn’t be bothered so I sat there a bit longer watching the TV.
It’s 1984, we don’t own a remote control and any way there are only four channels so I apathetically start watching what comes on next – it’s a play, black and white, a repeat. I’m bored already. But not so bored that I’m going to go to bed before my mum forces me to.
But the play grabs my attention. Even though it’s an old programme, it’s filmed in a kind of jerky hand-held fashion, something I don’t think I’d seen before except on the news.
So it seemed realistic, and the plot, well it was gripping, Reg and Cathy start out well, then Reg loses his job, they end up homeless, they end up losing their children.
It’s absolutely heart breaking – the desperate and avoidable misery and degradation of decent people.
I wasn’t enjoying the programme, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off.
And then I got to the end and there was a follow up piece afterwards that told me that in reality the play had been no fiction, it was based on a hundred thousand case studies because homelessness and inadequate housing are realities.
So I sat there in our mid terrace house, in a working class bit of Lancashire and felt I knew half the characters involved, and I felt very angry, very upset and desperate to do something.
I went to bed in tears.
In the morning, I picked up the newspaper – my Mother was a Guardian reader of course. You’ve heard of the nouveau riche, well we were the nouveau poor – middle class in outlook, underclass in income. Anyhow, on front page of the Guardian, not by accident but by design I’m sure, was an advert for Shelter. I cut it out, stuck it in my pocket and later on I nicked out of school at lunch time, bought a £1.50 postal order from the Post Office and sent it off and joined Shelter.
The rest is history.
Now there are lots and lots of different reasons to get involved in politics, and though I say so myself, I think getting so upset about something that you can’t bear not to do something about it is a decent enough motive… but it’s not enough is it?
It’s thirty years since I saw Cathy Come Home, forty-eight years since it was first made. Today, could we look Cathy in the eye and say we’ve made things much better? Did my £1.50 do any more than just salve my conscience a bit?
You see, I think things probably got better for a decade or so after Cathy Come Home, but looking back now I find it hard to make a case for us having made much progress.
The problems have changed a bit. But the basics remain the same: that decent housing is a basic human need, a human right, demand outstrips supply and so millions live in housing need, many of them in desperate housing need.
Today’s crisis is dreadful and it is deepening.
Too often we talk about housing in terms of buildings, or markets, or numbers, or planning regulations. But it’s about people.
Poor housing affects your health, your happiness, your learning, your job prospects, everything. Britain’s failure to build has transformed it over the last thirty years. And in a way that shames us.
The number of private renters is now well above the number of social renters. Home ownership today is at its lowest levels for 25 years. At the same time almost a fifth of 55 to 59 year olds now owns a second home. Probably in the Lake District.
We face an acute crisis where those on modest incomes face life shaping decisions unimaginable to the generation who bought before the late nineties boom.
Do we have money for children or a deposit? Should I move 20 miles away from my family, or live at home until I’m 40? And for older people, how many years will this family home suit my needs – because there are no decent or desirable homes to retire into?
Let’s be blunt. This is not just a housing crisis. It’s a social crisis. And it’s roots are political.
So I want to outline some key principles which I believe will make our society fairer and our economy stronger for everybody, not just the comfortable minority.
Let me start with those who bear the brunt of the crisis – the younger generation.
In 1983, the average deposit on a home as a percentage of a first time buyer’s annual income was 12%. In 2012, it was 83%. This is a staggering transformation. Now more than a quarter of 20 to 34 year olds are still living with their parents. These facts are clearly linked!
The reason for this is blindingly obvious, but it needs telling. A combination of dogma and cowardice from the previous two administrations landed us here.
So, in the 70s, we built homes. Then in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher offered a relatively small number of people the chance to buy the homes that the state had built, and bought them for less than they were worth. Mrs Thatcher then banned councils from replacing those homes. And Labour took power and was too desperate to convince everyone that there weren’t even remotely left of centre and so they let the number of council homes drop even more.
Which means that the dream of the property owning democracy was realized for some, and for the duration of a single generation – but it could only ever be for a single generation.
Because then came the late nineties house price boom, locking the door shut on those who couldn’t buy beforehand. Ex-council homes were sold off to private landlords, who today rent them back out at the taxpayers’ expense.
Government today spends even more on social housing that it did in the 1970s, its just that its switched that spending from bricks to housing benefit. It has choked supply and left our children – quite literally – to pay the price for the failure to build.
If food prices had risen at the same rate as house prices over the past 40 years, then today a chicken would cost you £51.33. Four pints of milk would be £10.48, and a loaf of bread would set you back £4.37.
This was not inevitable. The political class made it happen and let it happen.
Every now and then in politics you get the big idea. And bless her, Mrs T’s decimation of our social housing stock was a big idea. Just remember that big ideas aren’t always good ideas.
But 70 years ago the Liberals changed Britain with the biggest idea and the best idea. Beveridge’s idea. William Beveridge named the problems that Britain faced, the five giant evils: Squalor, idleness, want, ignorance and disease.
And then he named the solutions. State schools, the NHS, decent homes, welfare and full employment. A consensus that put human dignity first. A consensus that government must never wash its hands when it could roll up its sleeves. A consensus that made Britain both great and decent. A consensus that was later broken and buried.
Nowhere is this damage seen more visibly than in housing. Beveridge’s legacy was dismantled. And it has been replaced by short-term, poll-driven, non-solutions.
Now, I haven’t just come here in order to make you more miserable than I was when I watched Cathy Come Home. I actually believe there is real hope. Proper hope based on evidence!
You see, the political balance is shifting and it’s shifting in favour of those who want the housing crisis to end.
Those we thought were comfortable home owners are now feeling the squeeze. Their kids are in their 20s and 30s and can’t move out unless Mum and Dad blow the nest egg in order to get the kids to fly the nest. And increasing numbers of older people are desperate for options better than the desperation options available. And the polls are beginning to show it. 80% of people across Britain according to Ipsos Mori now believe there is a housing crisis – and a majority want to see stable or falling house prices.
Housing has climbed to the top of voters concerns, from 18th in 2010 to 4th today. Why? Well in part because the crisis is getting worse. But crucially, we’ve reached the tipping point: the chunk of the population who want change now dwarfs those who want business as usual. History has turned a corner.
We either strike a fair and bold new deal with what we’ve begun to call Generation Rent or face the social and political consequences.
Because Generation Rent is not a twenty-something term. Generation Rent are in their 30s and 40s now. They are a growing army – a powerful demographic. And they will take the side of anyone who has the backbone to stand up for them.
So a special moment has come in our history. This demographic shift is showing in the polls and I am determined that Liberal Democrats are going to be on the right side of history.
We must build the homes Britain needs.
How to do it?
Well, I hear it from all quarters – everyone from the CBI to Shelter. Housing needs local leadership.
I am a Liberal Democrat, and I am pretty dogmatic about devolving power to the lowest level possible. It is good news that this Government has freed communities to get involved in building the homes they need. Community right to build, to reclaim underused public land, neighbourhood planning – these are all good things.
But we have to be realistic about localism if we are going really make a difference. Look, the type of people who get involved in local democracy tend to come from a pretty narrow group. Statistically, they are older, more likely to own a home, more likely to oppose new developments. That doesn’t make them bad people. But as it stands, local democracy tends to lock out the young. Localism must not be a shortcut to pulling up the drawbridge.
So we will encourage councils to face this crisis collectively, as my colleague Annette Brooke outlined at our spring conference this year. Which means that now, more than ever, we need local politicians of courage.
I’m bound to say that I am immeasurably proud of my own council in South Lakeland. They have overcome political opposition to build already hundreds and soon thousands of affordable homes in our community. Frankly, if we can do it when we have to two national parks to protect, then there is zero excuse for any other local authority.
Secondly we must be wary of the belief that the market alone will deliver homes of a reasonable price. Left alone, the market has delivered house builders who have to focus more on dealing in land than building homes, a chaotic private rented sector and dangerously volatile house prices.
Over the last forty years, the decline in social housing has been mirrored by the rise in second home ownership. In my constituency, there are 3,500 people on the council waiting list and almost 4,000 second homes. Thanks to my colleague Andrew Stunell, we now charge full Council Tax on second homes. But we must drive through policies which give councils greater control over the homes in their areas.
Thirdly, building will take time. And that means that we need a fair deal for renters and we need it now.
Private renting is the fastest growing sector of housing – nearly a third of renters are families with children and almost half are over 35. Renting is the new normal, but currently it is more like a shabby waiting room which you endure before you reach the final destination of a home of your own. Only you may wait a lifetime. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of private renters in poverty doubled from 2 million to 4 million.
Letting agents can charge rip off rates which spiral into the hundreds of pounds. Shelter research shows that one in seven renters who use letting agents paid more than £500 in fees. It’s hard to see how switching names on a contract costs that much. On top of that, it’s a safety lottery – a third of privately rented homes fail to meet the Decent Homes criteria.
At the same time councils can now house their homeless people in this same substandard accommodation. So we place the most vulnerable, in some of the worst properties, with the least stability.
The Lib Dems have pushed for a raft of measures to promote fairer tenancies. I am pleased that we have seen some progress – more power and £6.7m for councils to tackle rogue landlords, a draft tenant’s charter and a build to rent fund.
But we’ve struggled to convince Conservative colleagues who use their fears of red tape as an excuse to do nothing. They spent £600,000 in two years on marketing Right to Buy. Why not spend this on marketing the rights of tenants? On making longer tenancies a reality? Or sorting out letting agents?
Fundamentally, though we have to build – it’s inevitable – even George Osborne has admitted it! We need to address current need and the backlog of need. Labour have called for 200,000 homes to be built a year. The Lib Dems have called for 300,000. Our figure is definitely the one that is closer to our actual need, but all the same this is a lot more than a numbers game.
We have to deliver our targets sustainably and demonstrate that we have learnt from the 1970s, when poorly built and designed tower blocks shot up only to be demolished years later. We must build planned communities, not more ad hoc urban sprawl. Again, housing is about people – and people thrive in well designed, planned communities. Places with parks to enjoy, with the infrastructure and amenities they need, close to the jobs that will sustain them.
The significance of this goes far beyond housing policy. For a Liberal, Community Politics is a lot more than just a political strategy, its a way of life. It’s at the heart of who we are – and in order to be immersed in your community, there needs to be a community. If we want a society where people know their neighbours, enjoy where they live and can form a strong civic core, we must build not just houses, but communities.
Imagine that instead of fighting over incremental additions to urban sprawl, we built with vision. We built for the next 20 years instead of the next five. And we built fresh places, of all sizes, which capture the way we want to live in the way we build them. No more eeking out smaller and smaller homes on overpriced land.
If we owned up to the homes we need, we could lift our eyes and plan for the homes we want. We could jump over the greenbelt and the exorbitantly high land prices that surround it and build fresh places in new locations.
I want a ‘my back yard deal’, a ‘green belt deal’. Communities support the building of new communities in return for protecting themselves from development on their doorstep. At the moment we build on the very greenfields people most care about, the most expensive places to build. Let’s stop that. Let’s strike a deal. You don’t want us to build in your back yard? Fine, but we’ll do even better than that for you, we’ll give you a new greenbelt, but in return, we will build on your horizon, fresh places on cheaper land, better houses for lower cost, robbing no one of their view, building homes for a generation in need.
So Garden Cities should absolutely be a part of this – and after pressurising the Tories for years, I’m glad we’ve seen some progress. Nick Clegg has championed the cause of garden cities – against quite a bit of Tory blocking. We’ve unlocked stalled developments, like Ebbsfleet and Cranbrook, near Exeter. According to Don Foster, it’s the first new settlement to be built in Devon, for 600 years.
We’ve also got to wake up to the fact that many of those fresh places, actually already exist. In the North and Midlands we’ve got the vast potential to create alternative centres to London. Many of the economic and social problems that we face in this country revolve around the bizarre fact that our largest city is seven times bigger than our second largest city. It’s time that we stopped wasting the potential of the North.
I was born in Lancashire, I live in Cumbria, I went to university in Newcastle and I spend several days a week in London. If I had to rank those four locations for quality of life, London would be fourth. It’s just a personal opinion…but of course, I’m right. Seriously, you guys don’t know what you are missing. If we can create alternative economic centres to London, we will lift the pressure from London, and tackle social problems in every community.
But much of the solution is going to come in the form of new homes. And here I want to touch on another issue regularly ducked by the political class – climate change.
My Lib Dem colleagues across the Government have been working tirelessly to get a green foundation to house building. We’ve repeatedly committed to building zero carbon homes. We’ve stopped landlords renting out the least energy efficient properties. Under the Coalition, all new homes will now be one-third more efficient than before.
And we are utterly determined that this week’s IPCC report must not be filed away in to the ‘too difficult to think about’ folder.
Climate change does and will affect every home, every family, every body. If this generation of politicians does not act boldly now, it will be held in contempt by the generations to come. And the housing crisis will be nothing compared to the human tragedy of catastrophic climate change.
Housing alone generates 27% of UK carbon emissions. Of those emissions 73% come from heating space or water. We know that warmer, drier houses means better health, lower bills and hope for our climate. We may have made progress but we’re lagging behind other countries when it comes to sustainable housing.
In Sweden, a sub-Arctic country whose homes need warmth even more than we do, housing generates barely a twentieth of carbon emissions. In the UK, it’s more than a quarter.
This is not acceptable. The UK Green Building Council puts the challenge starkly: by 2050, we are going to have to match Sweden’s record, and then some. We need to eliminate 80% of the carbon emissions that we emit today. In other words, about as much as we produced in 1850, while supporting seven times as many people as we did in 1850.
So I want us to be part of a Government that commits to delivering truly green homes, that will weather the storms of flooding and climate change.
This leads me on to another aspect of the crisis – our aging population. The number of people aged 65 and over in the UK is set to grow from 10 million now to 17 million by 2033. Research by Demos shows that one in four of over 60s would be interested in buying a retirement property – that’s 3.5 million people nationally. So our new settlements must have at their heart, meeting the needs of an aging population.
Some councils are stepping up to meet this challenge. Take Winchester. They realised they need specialist housing. They’re working in partnership to secure the funds and deliver the homes. They’ve set a ‘zero’ rate Community Infrastructure Levy for older people’s housing, they are even working with local parish councils to get local people discussing solutions.
The market for decent places to retire to is huge – and the provision for that market is pathetic. We need more homes to retire to, that are actually desirable and don’t feel like some hideous waiting room for the inevitable.
Now things are improving and that’s why we need to continue and expand the work that my colleagues Paul Burstow, Norman Lamb and Don Foster have pioneered. The future of our aging demographic must not creep up on us unawares or slip off the agenda.
But talk is cheap, and actually getting on with the enormous work of meeting our housing need is beset with problems. We have a significant skills shortage and a private sector which has never delivered as we hoped it would – even at the height of the Blair boom the private sector barely delivered a half of the number of homes each year that we need now.
So who is going to build these homes? And where does the money come from? Who wants to build them? Who has been knocking at the door of the Treasury with immense persistence? Who has the creativity, commitment and the local knowledge needed to increase supply sensibly?
The answer is mind numbingly obvious – local councils and, especially, Housing Associations. The housing crisis has stirred up radical thinking – and in Housing Associations in particular, you have a whole sector that is champing at the bit to build. To build mixed communities, to build well. At the same time many councils are crying out to deliver. This is not rocket science, but it is a science. If we were to stop shackling them, and instead give them the freedom to act, then development will follow.
So, in this Government we fought for the right for councils to raise their borrowing caps to build – by a bit, but not much because it’s clear that they can and want to do far more than the latest increment will allow.
And where communities have the desire and passion to take housing into their own hands, Housing Associations can provide the support they need – for example through partnering with community land trusts. But this can’t just happen from the bottom up in some painless, philosophically beautiful fashion. National government has to actively change the rules to let councils and Housing Associations help them to solve this problem.
Critical to this is letting Housing Associations borrow more – drawing in private investment. We must listen to them.
Across the piece, we need to listen to what works rather than be prisoners of our ideologies. Private sector development is a vital part of the solution – and those who think that the only answer to this is via the public sector will never see results.
For died in the wool right to buy fans, I’d just ask you to take a trip to my constituency. The national parks cover half of the land mass of my area, equivalent to half the size of greater London, and between them they contain a population of around 50,000 people. Yet the national parks release enough land for just 60 homes a year. Right to buy has diminished our social housing stock from 7,500 to 3,000.
I can take you to village after village after village where there may be at best one social rented home in a row of a dozen originally built by the council. That means village after village after village where the life of the community has been all but extinguished. No local family on an average wage has any chance of a home given that local house prices are twelve times average wages.
One for one replacement of homes sold under right to buy, is happening in many places but not everywhere, not enough and so this dismal leakage continues.
So, frankly, we need to be pragmatic about this and give councils the right to suspend right to buy, which already happens in Wales.
We’ve also got to be honest about the impact of the removal of the spare room subsidy. My party conference last September was very clear in its opposition to the policy as it stands. I agree with my party conference. As a result there is now a Government evaluation of the policy. And long before that, Steve Webb pretty much single handedly tripled discretionary benefit sums to £180 million.
It is right that there should be a review not least because those of us who are concerned about the need to build more homes know that the policy can distort the priorities of developers to building too many smaller properties at the expense of a more balanced approach.
We also know that the policy has had an impact on the incomes of Housing Associations, reducing their capacity to build new homes. Building our way out of a crisis means giving Housing Associations more power and it also means removing obstacles.
Finally, we must not let the political weight of the squeezed middle eclipse the needs of the squashed bottom. We must protect those whose housing situation is the most precarious – even though it won’t win us many votes! The onslaught of divisive rhetoric which demonises the poor can never help us create a fairer society.
Poverty is not a static phenomenon. People spiral into it. And Lib Dems want a welfare state that helps people out of it. That treats people as individuals, rather than problems, that rejects the rhetoric of divide and rule and instead joins the dots on housing, health and jobs.
This is not only right and fair, it makes economic sense – preventing a descent into chaos, rather than just treating the symptoms of poverty – however politically unpopular that might seem.
So it might not win us many votes, but I am proud that we have protected housing benefit for under 25s, and have fought off further welfare cuts.
Going into the next election we will continue to fight for a fairer society built on a stronger economy. We owe our children homes. We owe them communities. We owe them the political courage that it will take to build fairer homes for all.
Through a combination of dogma, disinterest and cowardice over two generations now, we have built a housing crisis. And now we must build our children out of it.
When I was asked to do this speech, I started rattling it out on my laptop on the train, full of ideas and enthusiasm… and then I stopped, hit by a wave of cynicism.
I mean we’ve heard so much of this before haven’t we? It’s not speeches and papers and conferences we need – its action. The thing is though, this isn’t just paper talk.
You see, with Generation rent now spanning a section of the population born between the early 70s and the 90s, there’s an ever growing, increasingly professional, articulate army of people who are going to vote for homes. There is an army of private developers, Housing Associations and councils out there – desperate to build them.
They are going to vote for those people on the right side of history, who understand that their time has come. They will back those who have backbone and vision.
But there is no need for a partisan dividing line here – we could just put down our ideology and pick up our shovels.
We could just wean ourselves off our knee jerk reflexes that would ignore Generation Rent. We could look the fictional Cathy and Reg and the actual millions of Generation Rent in the eye and tell them honestly that we’d stopped making excuses, started building homes.
The housing lobby, those in all parties and none who want to build. History and demography is on our side.
The question is, are you?