When I worked for an MP as a caseworker, the main problems I dealt with were tax credits, benefits (where the Government departments concerned were never quick to admit their mistakes) and housing. Every week, we’d have several new cases of people not just wanting a better or bigger or in fact any house at all, but desperately needing it. Four children in a two bedroomed flat doesn’t go. And don’t get all sniffy about how people shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford them. What are poor people supposed to do? Forget the hope of family life?That’s mean.
Nick Clegg has thus far talked about mental health and childcare in his new series of letters to Liberal Democrat members, two issues of critical importance to people in their everyday lives. This week, he chose housing, writing about his new garden city initiative. I like that while the Tories squabble about Europe, Nick’s focussed on making people’s lives better.
Here it is in full:
I’m writing this as we come to the end of an incredibly hectic week in politics.
The negotiations over the budget in Europe, securing of a much needed ceasefire in Gaza, rising speculation about the upcoming Leveson report. And Ed Davey’s important announcement of a landmark coalition deal on low carbon energy that will deliver billions of pounds of investment in clean technology and create thousands of jobs.
But in this letter I want to focus on an issue that wasn’t so high on the radar screen, but matters enormously to me: housing. I gave a speech to the National House Building Council (the people who issue guarantees for new homes) on Thursday which brought the numbers into focus for me and made me determined to step up our efforts.
As a country, we have built too few homes for far too long – and the economic and social consequences are massive. Prices out of reach of too many young families. Our economy vulnerable to boom and bust in the housing market. The housing benefit bill spiralling. Homelessness and overcrowding.
All these problems are solvable but only if we think big.
We’ve been talking about housing in the coalition for well over two years. At every budget and autumn statement we’ve brought forward new measures. We’ve reduced red tape and regulation for house builders. We’ve supported mortgage lending with products to help first time buyers. We’re backing housing associations with £10bn of treasury guarantees.
And yet it isn’t enough. This year we will probably build just 110,000 homes. If that sounds like a lot to you let me put you straight: it’s one of the worst years since the Second World War. When you realise that the population grew by about 270,000 households it’s clear it’s nowhere near enough.
No wonder prices are out of reach for so many families. The average first time buyer is now 35, and home ownership is falling for the first time in a generation.
The only way out of this crisis is to build our way out.
This week I announced funding of £225m to kick start development at eight sites, each with plans for over 5,000 new homes. But I want to think bigger – much bigger. We can’t go on building a home here and a home there and hoping it’s enough.
I want us to go back to some of Britain’s proud heritage of urban development and build a new generation of “garden cities” – places that will grow, thrive and become part of the fabric of the nation.
Of course development is always controversial. It’s right to protect our precious rural landscape and not let England be concreted over. But the point I’ve been making in government (and there have been some lively debates) is that planning big new settlements is the best way to protect our countryside because the alternative is endless urban sprawl.
Instead of eating away at the green belt, we can build big and even designate new green belt around new towns and cities. I think that’s why even the Telegraph was supportive of the plans I outlined this week.
We could easily build new garden cities totalling a million new homes in the next ten years without building on any green belt, National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And by doing it we could deliver homes people can afford in places they want to live.
We can’t do this overnight. Scale and ambition take time. But I believe if we put aside partisan politics and think collectively about the housing needs of the next generation, we could set Britain on track for a major wave of new development, new jobs, and new hope.
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