The government is promising £3.7bn for affordable housing – but will this solve the housing crisis?

Great, all we need is another 249,999 of those every year and we're sorted. Image: Getty.

This post is presented by WhatHouse? the leading portal for new build homes in the UK.

As part of last year’s Autumn Statement, chancellor Philip Hammond said the government would invest £3.7bn in building 140,000 new houses – 40,000 of them classed as “affordable”. The announcement was cautiously welcomed by many within the housing industry; a number of other industry figures, though, were quick to point out that £3.7bn was still a drop in the ocean compared to what was really needed to tackle the housing crisis.

So who’s right? Could this £3.7bn make some difference or even solve the housing crisis altogether? Or has the housing crisis already got to a stage where it would be nigh on impossible for any government to tackle it successfully?

Apart from anything else, it’s hard to overestimate the scale of the UK housing crisis right now. The Redfern Review, published in November last year, was just one report of many to highlight how severe the shortage of affordable homes had become. It showed that since 1996 real house prices have risen 151 per cent, whilst wage growth has been much slower – and for the last decade has entirely stagnated. 

The result of this is the average price of a UK home is now six times the average income. This widening ratio between house prices and earnings means it’s younger house buyers in particular who are finding it hard to get on the property ladder. This in is just one consequence of a complex housing crisis that looks increasingly difficult to solve with each year that goes by.

The good news is that, in addition to the £3.7bn put aside for new homes, the Chancellor also announced that the government was committed to doubling the annual capital spending on housing. Further good news is that the government has pledged is to build 200,000 new homes each year until a total of one million new-build properties are completed by 2020-21.


However, most analysts believe that at least 250,000 new homes need to be built annually, to keep up with population growth alone. In addition, the government’s promised figure of 200,000 new homes is thought by many to be a little optimistic. Only 160,000 new houses were completed in the UK during 2015.

As for that £3.7bn investment, even if it doesn’t make a significant impression in regards to the overall housing crisis, its importance as the headline act in the chancellor’s first Autumn Statement could still prove to be significant. It suggests that the government is indeed serious about making housing policy one of its top priorities, as it has previously stated.

It should also be noted that the first major government policy announcement of 2017 was regarding housing and the creation of 14 “garden” towns and villages in England which should result in around 200,000 new homes being built.

So if, sometime in the next few years, it becomes clear that the housing situation has significantly improved due to government policy, then the £3.7bn announced in last year’s Autumn Statement may be remembered – not so much for the actual amount, but as the first sign the government was genuinely willing to tackle the crisis. The next test to see if this optimism holds up is when the government’s White Paper on housing is published later this month.

Keith Osborne is online editor at WhatHouse?, the UK’s best new homes portal and housing scheme advisory source. Keith has over 15 years’ experience writing within the property and new build homes industry. Each year he inspects new build homes as a regular judge for the biggest housebuilder awards in the UK – The WhatHouse? Awards.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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