The Housing White Paper for England, Fixing our broken housing market, has generally been seen as a damp squib. It’s not immune from ideological claptrap – for example, the assertion that “housing associations belong in the private sector” (p 51). It must be welcome, though, that this is the first document in many years to recognise the fundamental problem: there are not enough houses. Most documents on housing policy since the 1970s have been obsessed with the issue of tenure, which is a question of how the housing is distributed after it’s built, or affordable housing, which is about relative costs. There has not been enough building for more than forty years, and by now Britain needs a couple of million more houses. The crude numbers matter, because wherever there is a shortage, people get left out. If there are not enough houses, then some people will have nowhere to go, some will be excluded, and others will be forced to live in housing that is unfit. Because it’s a market system, the people who this is most likely to happen to are those with the lowest command over resources – that is, the poorest.
The policies suggested in the White Paper – it’s more of a Green Paper, with some scope for consultation – are not going to fill the gaping hole in housing supply. While the proposal to build 275,000 a year will help, there will have to be several years of continuous growth before the benefits are clearly felt. One of the problems is the reluctance of many of the main stakeholders – builders, local communities and banks – to do anything which might jeopardise house prices. I was intrigued, then, at a suggestion from an unlikely source: the deeply Conservative Michael Portillo, speaking from the couch on the satirical programme This Week. Portillo suggested that the building had to be done by the public sector, and then went further. The sale of council housing had shown, he argued, that it was possible to feed council housing back into the private sector as the occasion demanded: so it would be possible to create a bank of public housing now, and slowly to release it for owner-occupation so as not to unsettle the private sector. I doubt we would ever be able to do this with the fine degree of control that would be needed to manage the market, but the idea has a lot of merit. In particular, that it could do something for the people who are excluded now. Let’s build half a million new council houses right away, and then we can talk about what happens next.