What’s gone wrong with our housing – and what could go right

As symbols of failure, take a former council house in south London chopped up into six bedsits, housing association tenants waiting in vain for repairs and private renters searching non-stop for homes

As a symbols of success, take Vienna’s century of genuinely affordable rents, Barcelona’s long-term housing strategy and Singapore’s melding of the market and public ownership.

The Rental Health series stretching across BBC radio and television had all of that and more, from lots of jobs but no homes in the Highlands to the dire state of the rental market in Yorkshire to the mechanics of local housing allowance and Section 21 to people looking for housing alternatives in vans, co-housing and boats.

Those symbols of failure don’t come much starker than the three-bedroom council house on the Bampton estate in Forest Hill featured in the brilliantly appalling BBC Panorama documentary What’s Gone Wrong With Our Housing?

The first tenant moved into the home in 1971, bought it under the right to buy for £15,000 in 1984 and sold it for £85,000 in 1988. It is now owned by a private landlord who has converted it into six bedsits rented out for £960 a month each.

Most of what amounts to £60,000 a year in rent is paid in housing benefit by the government that sold it for a quarter of that.

As if that was not enough to make the point, the same private landlord has done the same thing to three other houses in the same terrace and is pocketing £250,000 a year.

All of this was broadcast in the same week that ITV News broadcast another report from Daniel Hewitt on terrible conditions faced by tenants, this time in temporary accommodation. Then the Housing Ombudsman released a devastating report on Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.

And it is continuing this week, with news that residents of a block in Peckham are considering legal action against Peabody after their neighbour Sheila Seleoane lay dead for two and a half years before her body was found despite their efforts to raise the alarm. The Today programme on Radio 4 is exploring the awful case in forensic detail this week.

In the meantime the government was grappling with the housing problems of refugees and asylum seekers and looking beyond hotels to old prisons and RAF bases and even barges.

And it was utterly failing to engage with the huge task of decarbonising the existing housing stock, ducking the issue in its energy strategy on what it billed as Green Day even as its own advisers warned that it must be tackled urgently.

File on 4 on Radio 4 was back on ITV territory with an investigation of conditions in social housing in London, this time featuring tenants of One Housing and Notting Hill Genesis and an interview with ombudsman Richard Blakeway.

However, in reaction to what looked like examples of clear and basic failures in the management of repairs and maintenance, the National Housing Federation drew attention to the wider issue of the ageing stock and the lack of any budget for regenerating existing estates and the government parroted its standard lines to take on how much it is investing through the Affordable Homes Programme.

Most of the Rental Health series across Radio 4 and 5 Live confirmed how utterly broken our housing system has become.

But what was striking is that none of it should come as much of a surprise to anyone in housing or in government – the scandal of temporary accommodation in particular has been exposed many times before and yet nothing ever really changes.

If there was a problem with the series, perhaps it was a tendency to accept the system as it is rather than asking why it is like that – treating the prospect of renter reform as the answer, for example, rather than as a minor improvement to a market that does not work.

That’s where the optimistic note sounded in the Radio 4 series on solutions really came into its own.

The series started in Vienna, the Austrian capital that has built on the socialist housing policies adopted after the First World War and become a beacon of hope for affordable housing policies across Europe. Developers might not like rules that two-thirds of developments over 150 units have to be for subsidised housing but the system works.

Britain was once heading in that direction too, of course, before governments began to put quantity ahead of quality and before the introduction of the right to buy. The long-term damage done by the policy – not so much the sales as the failure to reinvest the proceeds – meant that council housing was never able to mature into a sector capable of adapting to the future as it has in Vienna. .

We also heard from Barcelona, which has adopted a long-term housing strategy inspired by Vienna that is starting to produce results. Fundamental rules such as ‘never, ever sell more public land’ were particularly striking in a UK context.

Solutions like this could be implemented in Britain – at a local level with enough devolution of power or at a national level with enough political will – but action is required across tenures, across government and across the housing system, not just piecemeal reform around the edges of it.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove admits this week that ‘the current housing model – from supply to standards to the mortgage market – is broken’ and progress on fixing it has been ‘piecemeal’.

His comments in an introduction to a series of essays published by the centre right think tank Bright Blue on Monday are striking but you have to wonder if he really understands the scale of the failure – or how radical the solutions need to be.


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