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 theher 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: