Good housing is essential to the good life, and provision of good housing should be the defined purpose of housing policy. But housing is also integral to the wider economy, so investment in housing is money doubly well spent.
A strong economy needs a well-housed workforce, and the social consequences of bad and expensive housing have huge economic implications. High housing costs have also soaked up billions of pounds that could have been invested in the productive economy. In contrast, money spent on housing construction and upgrading boosts local economies and jobs, and public investment in construction can contribute to economic stability.
The current focus on housing as speculation has failed to provide the homes people need, pushed up housing costs, encouraged bad design and short-termism, and concentrated wealth in a small elite. It has also brought economic crisis. We need to move housing away from the market and shift focus towards social and environmental priorities. This includes preventing a person’s life chances being dictated by their housing tenure.
Land is the major element of property speculation. A Land Value Tax would allow increases in land value to benefit everyone; and, combined with strong planning, would foster the most beneficial use of land and reduce land speculation. We should also promote public land ownership.
Publicly owned rented housing avoids speculation while providing affordable and secure tenancies. Major investment in new and upgraded public housing can make this a tenure of choice for all who want it. This can be done through local authorities, but with a new approach to management (locally based with active tenant involvement) and freedom for tenants to personalise their homes.
Home ownership is not a ‘natural aspiration’, but has long been promoted and subsidised by government. Good available public housing would remove the imperative to get on the housing ladder in order to get a home, and fiscal changes would restrict the use of homes for speculation (but not stop investment in building new homes). These changes should include – besides Land Value Tax – ending all subsidies for homeownership, extending capital gains tax to include the home, and raising the levels of both capital gains tax and inheritance tax. Re-regulation of mortgage lending would reduce risk of default and restrict price inflation.
House prices would fall and stabilise at a more realistic level. Even for existing owner occupiers this could be generally positive or neutral. Mortgages would need to be genuinely portable, while an extension of the mortgage to rent scheme could offer owners the alternative of converting their existing home into a local authority tenancy. Good pension provision and elderly care would ensure that housing is not relied on to meet the costs of old age.
Strengthened empty homes legislation should be used to increase the stock of affordable rented public housing, and the use of houses as holiday homes should be regulated.
Private renting can be improved through controls on rents and repair and better security of tenure. Landlordism is a major vehicle for transferring wealth to the rich, and ultimately most privately rented homes can be turned into public housing.
Environmental concerns must inform everything from national planning to the design of individual houses. Maximum use should be made of existing buildings, with VAT removed from building repairs and Green Deal type funding extended to cover holistic whole-house improvements.
Wider environmental demands mesh with social requirements for connected local communities and green space. Planning is key and needs to be supported by revived democratic structures to create good places to live.
Housing policy needs to be part of wider social changes towards a more equal community-centred society, and good housing policy can make an important contribution to those changes.