MP’s Notebook: housing

For several years now, the number of people contacting me about housing has been getting bigger and bigger.
They are either desperate to get a council house, are in a private let but can no longer afford the rent, are overcrowded or have been waiting for ages to move.

House prices are high – in parts of the country they are completely unaffordable – and they’ve risen by about 5% in the city compared to a year ago while real wages for many people are falling.

The cost of mortgages is rising as are private rents, and for millions of people society is helping to pay their rent through housing benefit because they simply don’t earn enough to cover it and their other bills. The truth is, we have a serious housing crisis both nationally and in Leeds.

Here’s why we have such a shortage of council houses. In the 1980s Leeds City Council had around 94,000 council properties. Today it is just 54,000. What’s happened? There has been a big fall in the number of council houses being built and the sale of council houses means that homes are currently disappearing from the Leeds’ housing stock at the rate of around 600 a year.

Then there’s the fall in turnover. It used to be about 4,000 to 5,000 homes a year – properties that became vacant which can then be re-let – but now it has almost halved. People are finding it harder to move and in uncertain times there’s a lot to be said for the security and reasonable rent that comes with living in a council house.

And finally, there is ever-rising demand. There are currently 26,500 people on the housing register in Leeds, of whom 6,500 have the highest priority – Band A – which means they urgently need a move.

Since the Council is only building about 200 new properties a year, plus buying some (ironically often former council houses which had been sold on by those who originally bought them), these figures show very clearly why it’s a losing battle.

To put it simply, there is a growing number of people chasing a diminishing number of properties. It is a perfect storm. When some newly built council houses were advertised recently for rent in east Leeds, over 1000 people applied under the choice-based lettings system for just one of them. Inevitably, people bidding every week are disappointed and they’re having to wait a lot longer to get a move.

Of course, new private houses are being built in the city along with flats to rent – many more people are now renting privately – but in the main these have been one- and two-bedroom flats whereas the greatest demand in Leeds is for three- and four-bedroom houses.

So for those who can’t afford either of these options – and that’s becoming even harder with the cost of living crisis and rising energy bills – it is to the Council that they look for help.

What do we need to do about all this? Well the answer is pretty obvious.

First, we need dramatically to increase the number of new council houses being built. For that to happen, councils need land and sufficient funding from Government.

Second, what should we do about the right to buy? This is a really difficult question of how we balance competing interests as a society. Being able to buy a council house has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get a foot on the property ladder when otherwise they wouldn’t have had any hope of doing so. That’s why council house sales have been so popular.

But we also have to face the fact that these sales have dramatically reduced the number of council properties available to let to other people who need housing. And quite a few of these properties, having originally been bought by the tenants, have now been sold on to private landlords who are charging higher rents for what were previously council flats and houses. Does this really make sense?

One suggestion is that local councils should be able to decide whether to suspend or restrict in some way council house sales in the light of local circumstances. There was a time when Government said that for each council property sold, another one had to be built – which would at least maintain the stock at its current level – but it’s never happened.

And thirdly, we need to do something about unaffordable rents and insecurity in the private rented sector.

Home is from where we venture out into the world at the start of the day and return at night. It is the place where we should feel most secure. And that’s why we need urgently to do something about this crisis.