If the new prime minister wants to help renters, they’ll need to think big

The Peabody Estate at Abbey Orchard Street. Image: Peabody Trust.

As a society we used to be able to promise that hard work pays off – but the depth and scale of the current housing crisis has rendered this contract void. Holding down a solid job is no longer enough to guarantee a home or any stability. In fact, new research by Shelter shows that across two-thirds of the country, private renting is now unaffordable for families on lower wages. 

Shelter analysed average private rents for two-bedroom homes in every local council area in England to assess whether they would be affordable to families in lower-paid jobs – with one adult working full-time and another part-time. By “lower-paid”, we’re still talking about dental nurses, mechanics and newly-qualified teachers – professional workers who by any metric should be able to afford an average home.

Shelter’s findings show that – excluding housing benefit – there are 218 council areas where local families earning a low wage would be forced to spend more than 30 per cent of their salary on rent. This is before essentials like food, bills and childcare, and it is leaving many families scraping by each month. It’s not right they are on the breadline because of forty years of failed housing policy.

The steep decline in social housing has left a growing number of families caught in a debilitating “rent-trap”, where despite working every hour they can, their only option is housing benefit. We’ve ended up in a perverse situation which necessitates paying out billions of pounds in taxpayer’s money to private landlords, just so that hard-working families can afford somewhere basic to live. 

In stark contrast to the pricey and unstable private rental market, social housing is affordable for working families on low wages everywhere – in every council area up and down the country.

It has become painfully clear to me, through my time on Shelter’s Social Housing Commission, that a new generation of social homes is desperately needed. It is the best way out of the current quagmire. Social housing is the proverbial “silver-bullet” to the housing emergency, and the only realistic alternative to private renting for millions of people. 

But we’re seeing a distinct lack of ambition from our would-be leaders to build the homes we actually need in this country. Amongst the many Brexit arguments, the Conservative leadership candidates have set out a few offers on housing, and Boris has talked up his record on “affordable” housing in the capital – but largely it’s just business as usual, and the usual rehash of past housing policies.

We’ve seen vague commitments to increase the number of affordable homes to rent and buy, despite that term seeming to encompass an ever-widening array of options, most of which are not at all affordable to your typical working family. This issue is too crucial for too many voters for it simply to be answered with yet more boilerplate responses from politicians. If we are ever to meet the needs of the millions of people left behind by the housing crisis, we will need a Prime Minister that is prepared to be bold and think big. 

The housing crisis is something that affects people’s lives in the most fundamental way. It impacts their security, where their children go to school, whether they can afford to put food on the table. Yet solving it is still being treated as a nice-to-have.

The next Prime Minister should be putting the housing crisis at the forefront of their domestic agenda, recognising its political capital and the risks of inaction. These new figures, which show the depth of the affordability crisis we face, must be a wake-up call, and a reminder of the ticking time bomb that is the renters’ vote.

We know building more social housing is popular with voters: it enjoys a rare consensus across the political spectrum and even across the Brexit divide. So what are our politicians waiting for? 

What we need is a major social housing offer – a commitment to 3.1 million more social homes in 20 years. This would serve not just those in the greatest need, but all those currently locked out of the chance of a stable home. Only this can bring an end to the housing crisis.

Lord Jim O’Neill is a former Conservative Treasury Minister and a member of Shelter’s Social Housing Commission.


17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.

14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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