'Housing has become a grotesque social injustice'
The desperate shortage of safe, affordable homes is feeding the divisions that threaten to overwhelm us, says Shelter chief executive Polly Neate. The answer is social housing.
We are living in scary times. The thing I’m most scared of – among many fears – is the divisions between us that feel like they’re widening almost daily. If those divisions overwhelm us, so that the centre cannot hold, our very resilience as a country is severely threatened just when it’s most needed.
I work at Shelter because I believe a safe home is a fundamental human need and therefore a moral right. I believe the insecurity, despair and hopelessness experienced by the six million people in our country whose right to a safe home is either denied right now, or under immediate threat, feeds the divisions that threaten to stop our country in its tracks, condemn us to decades in which we fail to achieve our full potential. And on top of that, the agonising anxiety of the many millions more who know they can never attain the home they need for themselves and their family to thrive – who are walking a tightrope all too aware that the safety net is threadbare – is exacerbating those divisions all the time.
Many decisions and omissions from all political sides, many spending choices, cuts, much myopic and short-term thinking have led us to where we are now, finally waking up as a nation to the grotesque social injustice our housing has become. It’s a national emergency. I’m not remotely interested in who is to blame. Finger-pointing is useless and annoying. As I say at home, I’m not interested in who started it, it’s who’s going to finish it I’m focused on.
The good thing is, finishing it is still possible.
The answer is social housing. Not a return to a rose-tinted past, but a bold vision for the future where the right to a home is like the right to health care, not the right to an ambulance. Not a plan based on analysis of what’s politically acceptable, but a plan based on what is needed, and can be made acceptable through our campaigning. The 1.2 million currently eligible for social housing but languishing on waiting lists are central of course. But there are young people for whom social housing is the only possible step to home ownership, whether by providing space and capacity to save, or through a sustainable future for right to buy (and yes you did read that correctly, we at Shelter do not call for an end to the policy which has become so central to our culture). And there are older people for whom private renting is utterly unsuitable: even with improved rights, it can never provide the stability and adaptability we need as we age.
If you don’t believe me that social housing can heal divisions, think of possibly the most acrimonious division of them all at this moment: the terrifying, traumatic yet also terribly tedious Brexit feud between leavers and remainers. Shelter’s YouGov survey found that 83% of remain voters and 77% of leave voters support building more social homes, with social housing being the top priority for government action on both sides.
For this specialist audience, there’s no need to reel off the statistics that we are immersed in every day, numbers that are so huge they almost lose impact: the homelessness toll, the waiting lists, the astronomical housing benefit bill, the incalculable human cost.
If putting numbers on the problem would solve it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The numbers in the solution are huge, obviously. We need to build 3.1 million social homes in a 20-year programme which requires an annual investment of £10.7 billion. Offset against just the savings in housing benefit, disregarding the considerable additional cost avoided, that reduces to a net investment of £3.8 billion per year. And the programme pays for itself after 39 years.
The unthinkable alternative is that our divisions continue to gnaw away at our society until what is spat out can no longer recover any semblance of social justice. So we’d better not let that happen.
- Polly is speaking at CIH's Total Housing event in Brighton on 6-7 March. Find out more and book your place