As Britain’s first Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove can surely be under no illusions as to the task that awaits him. But should any last vestiges of complacency remain, then the opening remarks to The Spectator’s panel discussion on social housing – held at the 2021 Conservative party conference – should have helped dispel them.
‘I honestly can’t remember the last time I talked about housing without saying the word “crisis” after it,’ began Helen Barnard, deputy director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (which sponsored the event) in her opening remarks. That sentiment was shortly echoed in tone in the statements of our other guests: Bob Blackman MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ending Homelessness; Councillor James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association and a member of Central Bedfordshire council; and Professor Jo Richardson, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing. The consensus was clear: Mr Gove had his work cut out for him.
For Ms Barnard, though, the more important question was defining the specific nature of the housing crisis. ‘I think what we’ve really seen, and in particular during the pandemic, is that the impact of the crisis lands most heavily on people on low incomes who have the fewest options in the housing market,’ she said. In support of this, she pointed to her foundation’s own research which showed that nearly one million private renters were unable to afford their rent. ‘This is one of the biggest things driving people to food banks or into debt,’ she said.
At the root of this problem, she added, was the lack of social housing. ‘Our analysis shows that we currently need 90,000 more social-rented homes per year to deal with that need. Yet we’re only building around 6,000, while also losing around 15,000 a year through “right to buy”,’ she said.