Overwhelmingly constituents email me to complain about four things; first because they cannot afford to rent in the private sector, indeed that they are often excluded out-of-hand because such is the pressure of demand that many landlords can refuse to even consider tenants who are in receipt of benefits.
Second, that there is insufficient local authority or housing association provision to accommodate them adequately, or at all.
Third, people of my generation with children in their late twenties to mid-thirties, write to complain that those children have no prospect of being able to afford to buy because prices have so outstripped earnings. (Consequently, we have tumbled from the top of the European league table of countries where most people own their own homes, down almost to the bottom. Economists insist that there is nothing particularly wrong with this, after all, look to Germany, where a majority are content to rent throughout their lives, but I am a politician not an economist and we are not Germans. My alarm bell rings because most of us still aspire to own our own homes, and it just won’t do if we can’t.)
Clearly, the economics all this requires such an increase in housing supply as to bring about a reduction in house prices and rents.
The forth most frequent thing that constituents write to me about however, is that whenever there is a housing development proposal, they complain that they don’t want it built anywhere them.
So, how to square this circle?
There is nothing new under the sun: Go back a hundred years and you will find that politicians were wrestling even then over how to solve the housing problem.
Over the years all sorts of things have been tried, some with modest success, and some with consequences the very reverse of what was intended: perhaps the best example of this being the introduction of rent controls which led to a drastic reduction in accommodation available, and a significant deterioration in the quality of that which remained.
Last year 217,000 houses were built, which is better than in any of the previous 18 years, but there is a big backlog of under-building to address.
There is no silver bullet.
At the Conservative Party conference there was a proposal to give incentives to landlords to sell to their tenants. It’s a helpful initiative, but it changes only the tenure not the total supply.
Here are some other suggestions.
First, the evolution of the new local planning process may, over time, lead to a reduction in the level of protest over proposed housing developments. Local politicians, instead of having housing targets imposed upon them, will assess the genuine local housing need and -knowing their own ‘patch’- designate the places where building can be more sympathetically accommodated. That process will be strengthened when they can also specify the type and even the style of development.
At present so much of this discretion is in the hands of the developers rather than the community.
Second, we need a much better quality of dwelling. I am inundated with complaints about poor quality of newly built houses, and the fact that the individual purchasers are at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with large developers when things have to be put right. There needs to be a better balance in these disputes. I am glad that a minister already working on what can be done.
Third, to address that part of the market where private sector developers have little incentive and interest, we just have to get councils building again. The very recent lifting of the cap -which had been placed on the ability of councils to borrow against the security of the flow of future rental revenue, in order to fund development, ought now to get things moving.
Social housing however, should be for need, not for life. It is unreasonable for people to be allocated social housing on the basis of need, yet to remain in it so many years later when their income and family circumstances have changed dramatically.
Perhaps most controversially, we should consider the price of land. The extortionate value of building land encourages development suitable to the most expensive end of the market and drastically reduces the scope for building something affordable for the first-time buyer.
It encourages ‘land-banking’ –the hogging of land by speculators in the expectation that when planning permission is granted their land will be worth many multiples of what they paid.
Their capital gain will be taxed, of course, but notwithstanding the historic right to dispose of property at the best price that the market will bear, ought we to artificially put a cap on it?
Finally, I offer my sympathy, but no apology to the many buy-to-let landlords who have written to complain to me about the phased withdrawal of tax relief on their principal cost of doing business, namely on their mortgage interest payments.
The simple fact is that this relief put them at an advantage against every first time buyer in the market, it meant they could afford to offer more to secure a purchase: it just wasn’t fair.