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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

'We need to change the debate on the housing crisis'

18/07/2018


Any debate on the housing crisis needs to start at the sharp end rather than focusing on home ownership, argues CIH Cymru director Matt Dicks.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to be in the audience for the BBC Wales The Hour programme which looked at the housing crisis in Wales. Filmed in Cardiff, it was a disparate audience made up of house builders, private landlords, tenants from the private rented and social sectors, and those who had a story to tell about their own particular housing crisis.

If you saw it I’m sure you will agree that it was a robust debate with some lively discussion, and some unique and interesting perspectives on housing in Wales.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s great that our national broadcaster chose to dedicate a whole programme to a discussion about the housing crisis – it’s important that the wider public better understands the predicament we are in, not only across Wales but across the whole of the UK. As CIH’s chief executive Terrie Alafat said at Housing 2018 in June: "The number of people without a home is a national disgrace."

But for me it was interesting to see how the programme and the debate was framed, and the wider implications that has for the national debate we need to have about providing homes for everyone.

The first half-hour of the programme was dedicated to home ownership and about how young people weren’t able to get on the property ladder, having to rely on the bank of mum and dad to rustle up the deposit.

"How do we take the heat out of the property market ?"; "We need to build more homes for sale"; "The right to buy was a good policy" were among some of the contributions.

It was broken up slightly with an exercise in demonising the private rented sector, hearing from students about how their accommodation was of a poor standard, and landlords letting themselves into the property without giving notice.

Yes there are bad landlords, but if we are to solve the housing crisis we need to work positively with a sector that now accounts for around 20 per cent of the rented housing stock in Wales.

But my wider point is this - while there's no denying the fact that a generation is being priced out of the aspiration of home ownership and that some private renters have a bad story to tell, is that really a crisis?

At around 35 minutes in we eventually heard from ta young women who, when pregnant, was made homeless and had to be housed in a hostel where she felt unsafe. She gave birth and still could not find suitable and affordable accommodation.

It struck me that this was, this is, the personification of the housing crisis and that we should have started the programme with this and discussed the direct causes, i.e. the severe shortage of homes at social rent, let alone intermediate rent; a welfare reform programme that is biting hard and forcing people onto the streets; cuts to and uncertainty around housing support services.

The only contribution about addressing the issue of supply of the right type of social housing came from a thoughtful contribution from Community Housing Cymru's Stuart Ropke. And we didn’t get onto the important role that support services play in addressing rough sleeping in particular until Frances Beecher from Llamau had to interject to make the point. Again little time was spent analysing that.

This is not meant as a criticism of the BBC and neither I, nor CIH Cymru, is opposed to the aspiration of home ownership. It’s an important part of our DNA as a nation, but the fact that the debate was heavily centred on home ownership suggests a wider problem in how the narrative of our housing crisis is being framed.

There was further evidence of this at Housing 2018 conference in Manchester last month when a panel of three senior political commentators, Tim Shipman(The Times), Poly Toynbee(The Guardian) and Steve Richards(BBC) all agreed that the Conservative government is focused on home ownership rather than building the numbers of social homes that we need – one suggested that there will be something in the green paper about right to buy.

If the fact that 60,000 people are on social housing waiting lists in Wales, that tens of hundreds are sleeping rough on our streets, that 40 per cent of people in Merthyr Tydfil can’t afford social rent, and that there’s a chronic undersupply of social homes is not the start of any conversation we have about the 'housing crisis' then we will never meet the requirement of any civilised society in ensuring that everyone has a safe place to call home.

 

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