Housing policy

Until now, systematic approaches to housing policy have generally been put into boxes marked ‘too difficult’, ‘too costly’ or ‘too hard to sell politically’.

But the view that being locked out of the housing market contributed to the Brexit vote suggests there is an opportunity to move forward.

Housing matters. It matters whatever your personal position in the economy. For the poorest and most vulnerable it is a marker of integration – the ability to participate in society with your most basic needs – having a roof over your head – being met. For those with more resources it has become a marker of economic success – a commodity rather than a home, the prize being unearned wealth from house price inflation.

As Britain moves ever closer to invoking Article 50 and we head to the reality of the UK leaving the European Union, it is worth reflecting on why housing matters to government too.

Housebuilding in the UK is one of the biggest multipliers in the economy. With nearly £5bn of construction materials imported to the UK each year, not to mention the workforce needed to build homes, the volatility that comes with  exiting the EU affects building costs, house prices and ultimately the number of new homes available to meet housing needs.

Increasing homelessness in England underlines the outcome of an unbalanced housing supply-and-demand equation – more homelessness and rough sleeping, greater housing exclusion and lost economic productivity. The UK has slipped eight places to number 20 in a recent European housing league, based on costs, conditions and quality. That feels like a very speedy decline down a very slippery slope.

“Housing matters to people and they want to see something happen”

Although often viewed as an intractable social problem it is now clear that housing matters to people and they want to see something happen. With a slim government majority, the UK policymaking arena has rarely felt so open to new ideas to solve the housing crisis. But we still need the political bravery to think differently. Despite a welcome extra £1.4bn of government money for affordable housing in England in 2016 and a new housing white paper that signals the government’s legislative intent, we still need a real ‘systems change’ in housing.

In virtually every review of policy successes that I’ve read, commissioned or championed, one thing stands out. It is leadership that gets things done. It is leaders with a vision who create momentum and achieve change. Put simply: it is people who get things done, not institutions.

Hence it seems fitting to me that the 2016 referendum vote in the UK took place in the same year as the 50th anniversary of ‘Cathy Come Home’. Ken Loach’s television film, which shocked BBC viewers in the 1960s, showed the desperation and downward spiral of a homeless family trying to get help. It paved the way for a dramatic legal change in the way homeless families were treated in the UK. It also spawned a movement. Some of the biggest homelessness charities and housing associations around today mark the start of their journey as the public outrage sparked by Loach’s drama.

That example shows what can be done. In the fifty years since, a whole industry of support has grown up to address legislative gaps. Efforts to extend that safety net continue.

The response to homelessness is also changing shape to reflect the challenges and opportunities of a more global environment. The European ‘End Street Homelessness’ campaign, led by the Building and Social Housing Foundation, is an attempt to collaborate across countries. Building on the successful #100khomes campaign in the United States, the campaign is adapting its approach to European countries, sharing good practice and attempting to build a movement to achieve change.

“Homes are not about institutions, but about individuals and families”

What matters in that campaign are the people – the people who get involved and change the system from within to house more street homeless people, and the people who get homes as a result.

Even as Brexit approaches, it matters that we continue to collaborate across borders, institutional systems and legal frameworks. The kind of innovation that these campaigns rely on depends on people learning from each other about what works (and what doesn’t), collaboration around solutions, and the creation of networks where ideas can flourish, be tested and adapted to work elsewhere.

What institutions and politicians can usefully do is to pave the way by removing red tape and creating the space for genuine collaboration and innovation to flourish.

Homes are not about institutions, but about individuals and families: their ability to participate in the economy and realising their economic potential through education, work and the communities they live, work and shop in. As the United Nations special rapporteur’s recent report on housing noted, a home should be a human right, not a commodity.

For me, the real opportunity of Brexit is the chance to change our housing system to a more inclusive and affordable one. To make that work I would love to see a European (or even worldwide) housing solutions network of people who want to develop affordable housing solutions, collaborate on ideas and co-create solutions to get more affordable homes built.

At its most basic level we should avoid the pitfalls of hasty policymaking. At its best, we could create more sustainable solutions that work for those who are currently locked out of the ‘luxury’ of a safe, affordable home. Who’s with me?

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / Flickr – Kenny Louie