There’s constant talk and evidence of there being insufficient housing in the UK, to the extent that it’s impossible to argue against. Certainly there’s far too little affordable housing.
We know the factors: for many years a growing population; an aging population, with more under-occupancy; too little building; many second homes. All this means that house prices and rents in much of the UK are high and many people struggle to find and afford somewhere to live.
And it’s got worse. Pandemic lockdowns haven’t slowed homelessness. Numbers of (single) people sleeping rough have been rising in Plymouth and across much of the country in recent months; and we’re seeing families presenting with nowhere to go. As the housing boom has continued this year, not just house prices but rents have risen dramatically. People are out-bidding each other for tenancies. It’s unheard of.
One reason for that is what might be called internal migration: people moving areas as they find they can work from home and no longer need to be in big cities. It means that some places are seeing more competition than ever for housing, with the consequent increase in prices. That’s definitely and visibly happened in Devon and Cornwall.
It’s therefore even harder for people on lower incomes to secure properties: they often can’t meet the rent levels now.
The need for more affordable accommodation is urgent. In the short term, government should be addressing the fact that benefits are too low in the current market – Local Housing Allowance must rise. Local councils, housing associations, homelessness charities and others must look what they can do, too, including purchasing or leasing properties to rent at reasonable rates.
But we also need a government task force to work with businesses and councils on under-used buildings. Even prior to the pandemic we have had city and town centres with ever more vacant shop units. Now working from home will be part of many people’s lives, to the extent that businesses can start to review how much space they need. Some are already reducing or giving up leases. This is a chance to convert under-used and un-used buildings into housing, bringing people back into centres and giving them homes.
When you’re in a crisis, it may well be time to be radical.