There’s no getting around it, the biggest Green news story of the week was Green Party of England and Wales leader Natalie Bennett’s poor showing in an interview with LBC’s Nick Ferrari. Not even Bennett herself would argue that she gave a good account of her party’s housing policy on Tuesday morning, but one of the worst results of this is that so few media outlets or commentators seem interested in the policy itself.
We could spend time arguing about how much of this is Bennett’s fault and how much it’s about the media’s hunger for a good story over an important one, but I know where my priorities lie – I’d rather talk about social housing in Britain, because this is a conversation we desperately need to have.
The real question is, when we discuss “housing” are we discussing a source of income or somewhere to live?
Gary Dunion has already argued convincingly that the policy in question is an excellent one. Some transformative Green policies challenge us to totally rethink how we run our economy, but while this housing policy is radical in its ambition its details are hardly daunting. To state it crudely, the Greens are proposing that we swap around how much money we provide for tax relief on the interest for buy-to-let mortgages (calculated at just under £6bn a year in 2011) and how much we subsidise the construction of social housing (currently around £1.5bn).
At this point, people will argue about the additional cost and availability of land. While these issues are far from trivial they don’t undermine the potential good this policy could do, and some of these issues could be mitigated as part of a land reform agenda, such as the one proposed by the Scottish Greens. Still, even if the target of 500,000 new council houses wasn’t achieved, the effort to reach that goal would go a long way to re-balancing our housing market.
This policy will not be universally popular (I imagine buy-to-let landlords might might have something to say about it!) but housing is a fundamental human need and successive governments have chosen to frame it as more of an investment opportunity during my lifetime. The Thatcher government’s Right to Buy scheme allowed many people (including my parents) to buy their home, but the wider social impact of this has arguably been disastrous, with more people now living in (insecure, often expensive) private lets than in (secure, comparatively affordable) social housing.
Compounding this situation is the fact that construction of new social housing nose-dived under the Tory government in the 80s and all but stopped dead under New Labour, with little prospect of a substantive increase in construction in the immediate future:
For the sake of context, here’s a graph comparing this to the trend in privately funded house construction over the same period:
There are considerable long term social and economic benefits to consider when you think about new social housing vs. private lets. The Green Party of England and Wales have argued that there are £300 million of pounds of potential savings here in reduced Housing Benefit between 2015 and 2020, and on top of that every new social housing property built is a potential source of long term income for councils and housing associations.
We might also want to think of the knock-on implications of reduced homelessness on our society. The Republican controlled state of Utah, for example, has been working to eliminate homelessness by offering homes and social care to those without it. The rationale behind this project is blunt and pragmatic:
In 2005, Utah calculated the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while the cost of providing an apartment and social worker would be $11,000. Each participant works with a caseworker to become self-sufficient, but if they fail, they still get to keep their apartment.
For all that the results are socially noble, the motivations behind Utah’s Housing Works scheme are the sort of financial benefits that are normally considered to be absent from Green politics. The potential to get fired up on this is huge, and that’s a good thing – if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s the confidence to argue against the idea that There Is No Alternative.
Still, while it’s important for Greens across the United Kingdom to be able to debate the plausibility of our policies, we should always make sure that it’s not all about money. When we’re talking about providing homes, what we’re really talking about is providing security, and giving people an affordable place to live in for as long as they need it.
We’re talking about an economy that values people and the planet over profit, and if that sounds like a dream now it doesn’t need to stay that way.