Simon Jenkins largely misses the point in analysing Britain’s housing situation (Michael Gove is right about one thing: building more homes won’t solve anything, 13 May). Yes, it is true that many owners are underoccupying their homes, but he devotes one cursory sentence to our desperately inadequate social housing provision, and none at all to the large and growing private rented sector.
For 40-plus years, our governments have persisted in the absurd notion that the market, with a little help from housing associations, would supply our housing needs. The result is that there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing everywhere, particularly for rent. And the private rented sector in the UK, unlike elsewhere, suffers from tenant insecurity, unregulated rents and poor conditions – while receiving huge benefit subsidies that add nothing to physical provision.
In contrast to our widespread owner underoccupation, many UK households, especially renters, suffer overcrowding, and our modern housing has woeful space standards. Market developers will never address the shortage, since they benefit from the inflated prices and margins that it produces.
In his largely sensible article, Simon Jenkins fails to mention the physical inefficiency of much of London’s housing. We live in a lovely Georgian terrace with ideal proportions but thin, jerry-built Victorian walls – hopeless conservers of heat. The conservation area and listed-building status prevent us from adding the type of stoneware cladding that can retain the attractiveness of the area while making it possible to install heat pumps, for example. Joined-up thinking is lacking, as usual.
Simon Jenkins makes some good points about housing taxation, but it’s not enough to suggest that the countryside of the north is sufficiently alluring to promote social mobility. The best economies, such as Germany, have many city “hubs” to ensure both an even spread of population and, more importantly, wealth. If London wishes to retain its position as a leading financial centre, then it must lose everything else. Thus parliament, which is crumbling anyway, must move to Birmingham. Manchester, already a media hub, would gain further investment.
Other areas of the economy would be established in different parts of the country. This represents a true version of levelling up, which of course will not even start under this government.
Simon Jenkins is right to point out that the housing crisis is linked to the failure of levelling up, but does not explore how both are related to wider policy failures.
One important factor is the shift away from secure employment. In the past, people taking up a job somewhere other than their current home might expect to stay for long enough to put down roots. Now that most jobs are temporary, people increasingly do not move to where they work but commute, an arrangement that reduces their ability to contribute to social and cultural life either where they work or where they live. This phenomenon particularly affects small or medium-sized towns with limited job opportunities.
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