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Home is where the heart is?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

Eavesdropping on a conversation between two ladies of advancing years on the station platform the other day, I heard the following exchange:

Lady A: I can’t believe they’re going to be building all those houses over by Samson’s Lake (or wherever it was).

Lady B: Nor can I. It’s going to ruin the place. It’s all because we’ve got too many people in the county. UKIP has a point. Let them live somewhere else.

Lady A: I agree. Send all these people down here without homes up north. They’ve got plenty of space to build houses up there.

Yes, of course, that’s the answer – just send people away from where they might want to live to where ‘we’ might have the space for them to live. Not.

Quite apart from the fact that’s it’s probably not practical to just “send” people to the other end of the country like that, it’s generally accepted that it’s better for people to live somewhere near where there are jobs for them to do.

‘Near’ of course in this sense means ‘an accessible way for them to get to work’, Southeastern Trains being, on paper, a reasonable way to allow more people access to jobs in London without actually having to live there. Having said that, anyone who has attempted to navigate London Bridge Station at rush hour lately will probably question my use of the term ‘accessible’.

We need more houses in this country. Fact. We need to build them and we need to build them today. And tomorrow. And the day after. And we need them built where there is work so that the people we want to occupy them can afford to live in them.

Conversely, where there are areas with plenty of houses but little work , we need to ensure sufficient investment in industry, jobs and infrastructure to allow those people already living there, or who aspire to live there, the means to do so.

Every Government I’ve ever known has made promises about ‘solving the housing crisis’. None of them have ever really had a clue how to go about it. More worryingly, none of them have seemed to grasp the pong-term economic implications of not building enough houses. We saw a little of the effect of that when the tap was effectively turned off in housebuilding in 2008.

Housebuilding across England is at its lowest peacetime levels since the 1920s and house prices in most areas are continually pulling away from what most people are bringing in each month. The average deposit is now a whacking great £30,000, a sum that is very, very, very hard to raise if you are starting out or anywhere near the bottom of the property ladder.

So yesterday’s Homes for Britain march and rally is timely in the extreme. Timed perfectly for the day before Osborne’s last Budget of this Parliament (ever?), the march, spear headed by the National Housing federation, put housing firmly at the top of the political agenda.

In doing so, it managed to accumulate support from pretty much all the corners of the political spectrum: UKIP leader Nigel Farage, film director and social commentator Ken Loach, Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow communities secretary; Ed Davy, Liberal Democrat secretary of state for climate change; Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion; and Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party and former housing minister.

According to the National Housing Federation, ten years ago more than half (55.6%) of 25 – 34 year olds owned a home with a mortgage but now it’s just a third (33.7%). Over the same period the proportion of 25 – 34 year olds privately renting has more than doubled, rising from 21 percent to 48 percent.

With home ownership pushed further out of reach and the number of households in affordable social housing also falling over the last thirty years, more and more people are renting from a private landlord. They often find themselves trapped in a cycle of expensive short-term lets that leave them with little stability or ability to save for a house deposit, despite how hard they work.

We need to have a coherent, consistent commitment to housing in today’s Budget and in the next parliament and the one after that. We need a commitment to build homes where people want to live, where people want to work and without bulldozing too much of our green and pleasant lands.

It’s not an easy task, but then who ever said doing the right thing had to be the same as doing the easy thing?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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