Politicians are promising new homes, but which of us will feel the benefit? With three weeks until election day, The Comet considers whether our parliamentary candidates have the answer to the housing crisis
PUBLISHED: 19:00 18 May 2017 | UPDATED: 19:12 18 May 2017
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Having a stable and secure home is probably the most basic human right. Without it it's very difficult to develop as a person, hold good relationships, succeed in your career or - above all - feel happy.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the struggle to buy or rent a home at an affordable price may be the key issue facing voters in this General Election campaign.
With house prices going through the roof across North Hertfordshire, and people having to shell out huge proportions of their salaries on renting properties that are all too often in a poor condition, all political parties seem to recognise that we are in the middle of a housing crisis.
Yet despite people feeling the pinch, house prices are rocketing, large numbers of homes are being built and housing developers and estate agents are making record profits. How does this add up?
Comet reader Jenny Allen summed up the views of many voters – especially of the younger generation – when she wrote to us asking the simple yet poignant question: “Where are our grandchildren going to live?”
She issued a heartfelt plea to parliamentary candidates to do their best to solve the housing crisis, saying: “What I will vote for is someone willing to tackle the housing crisis.
“It now costs 11 times the average salary to buy a home in North Herts. We expect each generation to be better off than their predecessor, but for the first time a generation is worse off than their parents.
“I’m lucky enough to have parental support which meant I could buy my first home in Baldock, but in general young people live in tiny and extortionate private rented homes, share homes or live with parents well into their 30s. They commute for hours every day to get to work because they have to live in the cheapest areas.
“Where are your children and grandchildren going to live? As it stands they need to earn more than £78,000 a year to afford a home in this area.”
“Prospective parlimentary candidates – please tackle the housing crisis. Please don’t ruin this generation’s ability to have the same chances yours did.”
One solution to the crisis of course is to build more homes. Almost all political parties are currently trying to win your vote by promising they will be the ones to make more affordable housing available.
Stevenage’s Conservative parliamentary candidate Stephen McPartland says he firmly believes further house building will solve the crisis. He is even proposing the idea of building a brand new garden city in North Hertfordshire to soak up the housing need.
He told the Comet: “The Conservatives have announced a range of new powers to help councils build more homes to try and help young people get on in life. We are committed to delivering one million homes by 2021. We are doubling the housing budget to more than £20 billion over the next five years to help us to embark upon the largest government-backed house-building programme since the 1970s.”
Mirroring this, Labour are also promising to build a cool million houses across the UK.
In Stevenage, Labour candidate Sharon Taylor has vowed to back the building of new council homes – a policy which she has already been instrumental in as leader of Stevenage Borough Council.
The Labour-led borough council has already committed to investing £1 billion in council housing in Stevenage up to 2030, including £448 million for 2,000 new council houses. It is also working with developers to bring even more housing to Stevenage.
Across North Hertfordshire, councils are in the process of passing local plans which meet Conservative government targets for housing numbers. Under these calculations, Stevenage will get 7,600 new homes and North Herts 14,000 by 2031.
By anybody’s standards this is a huge number of new homes, but is it enough? Is house-building really the right way to deal with the crisis, or will it simply ensure more homes go on the market at inflated prices, with profits going in the pockets of estate agents, banks and developers?
Hugh Annand, standing for the Liberal Democrats in Hitchin and Harpenden, thinks house-building is the solution, but does have reservations. He told the Comet: “In recent years, North Hertfordshire has seen considerable new housing development, notably to the north of Stevenage, yet decent housing remains out of reach of many ordinary working people. Westminster needs to create the framework in which they operate. That means empowering local authorities to address local housing needs by building new social housing to replace that lost through the right to buy scheme, tackling empty homes and making planning decisions that reflect the local economy and the local environment. It also means avoiding measures that look attractive but in fact serve to inflate house prices further. Money that is currently going into the pockets of offshore millionaires could instead be invested in new, decent, affordable public housing.”
Some politicians temper their enthusiasm for more homes with a concern for the environment.
North East Herts Tory candidate Sir Oliver Heald told the Comet: “While recognising the need for housing, I oppose insensitive development and I have worked in parliament to protect our natural environment, including our seven chalk streams. As a result, water abstraction is being reduced on the Rivers Beane and Mimram.”
Winners and losers
A striking point is that – of the major parties – only the Green Party seems willing to consider that big developers might be pushing to ramp up the numbers of houses built for their own gain.
The party’s policy says it wants to provide affordable and comfortable homes for all as a ‘basic human right’, but it also wants to ‘break the stranglehold that a small number of large developers have over housing provision’.
There are many different views about population growth and whether Britain actually needs a million new homes.
Office of National Statistics figures suggest UK population growth annually is around 0.7 per cent, and that this will slow to 0.5 per cent by 2030.
Meanwhile profits for developers are sky-rocketing.
Barratt Developments enjoyed a rise in pre-tax profit to £321m for the half year ending December 31, 2016 – up 8.8 per cent from the same period in 2015.
Taylor Wimpey saw an increase its profits by 20 per cent to £728m in 2016.
And the UK’s largest property portal Rightmove pushed up operating profit by 18 per cent to £162m in the year to December.
With thousands of homes and buildings lying empty and in need of regeneration, we might question whether more could be done to make use of what we already have and whether extensive house-building is spreading the wealth to the right people.
On a positive note, though, interest rates on mortgages are currently very low so it is a good time to borrow a mortgage. That said, wages are badly lagging behind inflation in the UK, so saving a deposit in the first place is tougher than ever. In February 2017, pay rose by 1.9 per cent year-on-year, while inflation rose by 2.3 per cent.
These are among the tough issues we must ask our politicians to answer before we vote on June 8.