I have previously written on the topic of homelessness in the UK, and the shortfalls that are obvious in how the current government combats this problem. Indeed, this issue remains widespread and concerning. An even more widespread issue, however, is that of inadequate and unsafe housing in the UK. In 2019, Shelter estimated that 280,000 people were homeless in the UK. In the same year, it was estimated that over 8 million people were living in unsuitable housing in England alone. The Coronavirus pandemic has proved that a house and a home are different things, and that the UK is seriously lacking both.
While a great many of us saw the pandemic as an inconvenience, where the worst-case scenario was confinement to our homes, the same lockdown order was a prison sentence for many others. Millions of people have been forced to live in overcrowded accommodation, with their parents, in unaffordable housing and in dangerous structures that actively contribute to the health problems of inhabitants. According to the National Housing Foundation, nearly 16 million people suffered mental or physical health problems because of the condition of, or lack of space in, their home during lockdown. Aside from the obvious health problems caused by the pandemic, these additional issues are only acting to put more strain on the British public and the NHS.
How did we end up in this situation? Population growth is monitored very closely in the UK, and there have been clear signs for many years that enough was not being done. The problem stems from numerous failings when it comes to British housing. In the first instance, there are simply not enough houses to go around. Recent estimates put the number of new homes required in England at 345,000 per year. In 2019/2020, the total housing stock in England increased by 244,000 homes – about 100,000 too few. In addition to this, those pre-existing houses in England are falling into unsafe and unsuitable condition. This was demonstrated most obviously by the tragedy which befell Grenfell Tower in 2017. More recently, the fire at New Providence Wharf in East London reiterated the dire need for updates to be made. Despite findings which showed many buildings were covered in unsafe cladding, the government decided that the onus of removing this cladding was on the private sector.
In addition to the lack of housing and the unsafe nature of homes, it is often the case that rents are too high for many to afford. This is most obvious in London, where the median rent hit a record high of £1425 per month just before the first lockdown. Across the UK, it was estimated that the average spend on household costs was 41% of an individual’s income. Concerns about affordability and the amount of an individual’s income being passed directly to landlords are rising steeply, but little is being done to combat the unaffordable nature of what should be a basic human right. Add on the new costs of removing dangerous cladding, and housing is fast becoming completely unaffordable for low-income families.
Legislation in the UK has put caps on the size of deposits which a landlord can charge a tenant, but the actual rental price of a property is uncontrolled, and largely determined by the market. This is not a shocking revelation, as most government policies in this area are run by a philosophy of “the market knows best”. Evidently, the market is biased against ordinary citizens who hope to build a home. Recently, the Coronavirus pandemic has put new and harsh demands on the population, and inadequate housing has become a more significant issue. The government promised that nobody would lose their home because of the pandemic, but this vow was untenable from the moment it was uttered. According to the former shadow secretary of state for housing and homelessness, Thangam Debbonaire, loopholes allowed hundreds to be evicted during the lockdown in spite of the government ban on evictions.
This sentiment is one which has been continued by the new shadow secretary of state for housing, Lucy Powell. Powell made her views clear in May, when moving an amendment to the new Affordable Housing Act:
This sentiment is undoubtedly shared by families around the country who continuously struggle to make ends meet. The truth is that Britain’s housing shortage is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges that face ordinary people. It is a fundamental truth that people need a home. It should also be true that an elected government helps people to realise this aspiration. There are understandable challenges between dream and reality, but there are no understandable reasons why striving for this dream is not possible. There are clear shortfalls on the part of government when it comes to housing. These issues must be addressed by those in power to prevent unnecessary dangers for British people, and if the government claims there is not enough money for such simple needs, we should remind them of their incapacity to perform simple PPE purchases at the expense of the taxpayer…