This is a letter to the Swindon Advertiser

Time for a Council house building programme

The latest Swindon Housing list statistics for April 2013 show a continuation of the unrelenting rise in household numbers on it. There was an increase of 575 households in just three months from January to April, from 15,093 to 15,688. The priority households increased from 7,010 to 7,292. This is no surprise. According to the Council’s own estimate each year there are 800 too few “affordable homes” built in Swindon. House prices remain too high for many people to buy. The average price is 6.4 times the average income in the town.

Meanwhile the high private rented sector (PRS) rents mean that more families struggle to make ends meet. This is reflected in the rise of the number of people in the PRS claiming Housing Benefit. Over the 4 years to last November, it rose steeply from 2,660 to 4,660. Between the two censuses in 2001 and 2011, PRS households increased from  less than 6,000 to over 14,000. The number of people living in PRS nearly tripled to over 32,000. This is the result of inflated house prices and/or deposits being beyond their reach, and the acute shortage of ‘social housing’. 

There has been a decline in home ownership nationally and locally. In Swindon there was an absolute decline in the number of mortgages between 2001 and 2011 and a big decrease in percentage (from 47.88% to 39.78% of households) despite 13,000 extra households in the town. So long as house prices remain at such high levels this decline is inevitable.

The scale of the national housing crisis can be measured by the fact that barely more than 100,000 new homes are being built in England each year whilst around 240,000 new households are formed. In Swindon less than 1,000 homes have been built in each of the last 4 years.

There is no way that the crisis can be tackled without a return to a large scale Council house building programme to produce genuinely affordable housing. The government’s new “right to buy” programme can only make the situation worse. From the Council’s figures we know that for every 30 homes sold, they can only afford to build 7 to 9 replacements.

The gulf between what is being built and what is needed, requires emergency action. A new Council house building programme would not only address housing need, it would promote socially useful production which would put unemployed building workers back to work.

One thing the government could do would be to write off the Council housing ‘debt’ which was imposed on Councils; £13.2 billion. Whilst this sounds like a lot of money to you and me, it is not far shy of the £12 billion guarantee for lenders under the government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme. Instead of underwriting bank lending to people to take on more debt than they can afford, the government could promote socially useful production by writing off this bogus debt. It would, for instance, give Swindon Council around £10 million a year extra towards the upkeep of our homes and a new building programme. We would have the same amount even if debt payments were frozen for a number of years.

There is no way that the numbers on the housing list here and nationally can be put into reverse without a break with the ideological opposition to Council house building which has dominated all the major political parties for decades. The longer it takes to make this break the worse the housing crisis will become.

Martin Wicks

Secretary Swindon Tenants Campaign Group