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Britain's Housing Crisis: Why Can't We Build More Council Houses?

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Value-for-money has been the deafening cry of free market ideologues and politicians on the right. Keep governments out, privatize, and let the market work its magic to produce the most efficient solution, they say.

So let us apply that to housing, a basic human need for shelter. Unless we belong to the super-rich, most of us are dependent on the modest wages we receive from work to survive and keep a roof over our family's heads. Any interruption of that income due to illness, accident etc. could tip the family into homelessness. Most of us feel "there but for the grace of God go I".

The vast majority of us, I believe, would agree that if any of us became homeless due to circumstances beyond our control, the state should step in to keep a roof over our heads.

One way to do that, which I call the market route, is to pay private landlords rent, or subsidize the rent through housing benefit to provide us with some accommodation. This solution frequently results in housing people in poor, inadequate accommodation, at a high cost to the taxpayer. The housing charity Shelter relates the story of a mother living in a B&B with her two children:

"My children had already been through hell before we got to the B&B, but once we moved in their mental health declined with every passing day. My son became depressed for the first time in his life and wouldn't get out of bed, and my daughter even started self-harming. As a mother it was heart-breaking to see, but I felt so helpless because living in the B&B was our only option"

Health problems are now affecting one in ten renting families, because rogue landlords refuse to do essential repairs. Imagine the stress and the blighting of lives of families in these situations. Then look at the economic cost to the taxpayer through the National Health Service (NHS). Renters are now paying on average 40% of their income on rent every month.

There is a hopelessness among the young of ever owning their own home. A poll by YouGov showed that 80 % of young people in England believe that it is harder to own a home now than it was for their parents. Combine that with the insecurity in the unregulated, expensive private renting market, and a blighted future for our young beckons.

Housing benefit spent by the government in 2013 stood at 16.94bn. Are we getting value-for- money paying or subsidizing rents to private landlords? Any objective assessor, surely, will answer no.

The other way is to start building more council houses. Local councils provided well-built houses on secure tenancies to those who could not afford to buy. Margaret Thatcher, in 1980, initiated the sale of council houses at a substantial discount, under the right-to-buy scheme. At the same time, local councils were prevented from building replacement houses. This led to a massive depletion in the nation's council housing stock. That decision judged on value-for- money argument is indefensible.

An adequate supply of social housing will provide people with security of tenure, and has the advantage of competing with the private renting market, bringing rents down to an affordable level. It will also save the taxpayer money in the long run.

Surely it is unacceptable to leave such a basic need to private landlords only, where the vulnerable are mercilessly exploited by the unscrupulous. Local councils should be given the cash to build adequate housing for people in desperate need of a roof over their heads.

Let us bring hope and peace of mind to millions of our fellow citizens who are, currently, living in misery and despair. This is morally the right thing to do, and moreover provides the best value for taxpayer's money.

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Dr Adnan Al-Daini took early retirement in 2005 as a principal lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at a British University. His PhD in Mechanical Engineering is from Birmingham University, UK. He has published numerous applied scientific research (more...)
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