Can this ‘ethical capitalist’ solve the UK’s social housing crisis?

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Britain is a nation obsessed with home ownership. A fundamental necessity for all turned commodity to speculate on, it is featured on daytime TV as entertainment, the sure-fire profit-spinner open to anyone.

The truth, as we all know, is that the prospect of home ownership is drifting increasingly out of reach for millions. Figures released last week show that as few as 7% of local authorities in England and Wales have homes that can be bought for less than five times workers’ earnings and are therefore deemed “affordable”. In 1997 the figure was 88%.

We have had decades of spiralling prices, flatlining wage growth and a dearth of new supply in the private or social sector. The result: a collapse in home ownership among under-35s from a peak in 1989, an explosion in private renting, more than 1.2m households on social housing waiting lists and rising inequality, poverty and homelessness.

Approaching a general election this ought to be troubling the party of government. Not least for one that has claimed to be the party of home ownership. But after 14 years of false starts and failed policy reboots, the housing crisis has gone from bad to worse.

Last week Michael Gove showed how far down the agenda housing has fallen, in buckling to pressure from Tory backbenchers to water down much-needed reforms aimed at protecting renters.

The focus is instead turning to Labour. But while Keir Starmer says Labour will be the new party of home ownership through a planning revolution, critics say his promises lack the financial firepower needed to make a real difference.

In a book published this month, the retail tycoon Julian Richer aims to push housing to the top of the agenda. Our Housing Disaster – and what we can do about it spells out the challenge for an incoming government.

A landlord himself with more than 300 properties, the self-proclaimed “ethical capitalist” behind the Richer Sounds hi-fi chain wants to make business work better for society. He says that housing, however, will need much tougher action from government to fix and cannot be left to the market alone.

“The politicians are frightened of the subject, it’s become toxic for them because it has such a failure rate,” he says. “We see this merry-go-round of ministers, looking over their shoulder for the next job. So this is a really long-term problem.

“Millions of people here are being shafted and screwed and having miserable lives because of it. Why can’t we fix it? Why don’t our MPs have a bit more compassion and have a bit more common sense? This is affecting millions.”

The book makes calls for short-term action – with the priority to improve the lives of renters’ through tougher protections against substandard accommodation, unscrupulous landlords and “revenge” evictions. But there are also longer-term measures in Richer’s manifesto, to deliver a national renaissance in affordable housebuilding.

At its core is a plea to prioritise social housing after decades of neglect, with a warning that the scale of our housing disaster is so severe that a council housebuilding programme on a par with the reconstruction efforts after the second world war is necessary.

Over the past four decades successive governments have moved away from social housing provision, with more than 2m council homes sold under Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, mostly never to be replaced amid a collapse in construction by cash-starved local authorities and housing associations.

Richer would scrap the policy, arguing that while some first-time owners made a lot of money from it, today’s young people on low or moderate incomes are paying the price.

Labour has said it would oversee the biggest boost in affordable housing in a generation by getting tough on developers and reforming planning rules. It would aim to deliver 1.5m homes over five years, effectively reinstating a previous 300,000-a-year Tory target.

Julian Richer advocates building 3m public-sector homes over a decade. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Part of this will include postwar-style new towns, with development corporations given power to compulsory purchase land at a price which does not reflect the value of potential planning permissions.

Under rules brought in by Harold Macmillan’s Land Compensation Act of 1961, local authorities acquiring land must take into account “hope value” in the purchase price, adding value in the expectation it will gain planning permission in future.

Labour could benefit from reforms made last year to allow local authorities to acquire land for “public interest” projects, including social housing, without paying hope value. But without entirely repealing MacMillan’s law, the process could still be slowed down and mired in legal challenges.

Improving the planning system alone is, however, unlikely to yield a transformative increase in private-sector housebuilding. Rather than targeting 300,000 homes from any source, Richer believes that a stretching target should be set for all of them to be genuinely affordable, through turbocharged social housing construction of 3m homes over a decade. “Nothing else will solve the country’s severe housing crisis,” he says.

It will require financial firepower. But the businessman makes a compelling argument that billions are already spent subsidising the private market – through schemes such as Help to Buy, and through more than £100bn spent on housing benefit between 2016 and 2020 – funnelling public money into the pockets of landlords. It is clear that money is readily available, and could be better spent by constructing an asset the state would own and generate income from.

Britain has not built 300,000 homes a year since the moon landings in 1969. Back then about half were from local authorities and housing associations, at the tail end of a postwar housebuilding boom, before a collapse in social construction rates to just a few tens of thousands.

Transforming the housing situation can be done, Richer says, because it has been done before. By the mid-1960s, huge numbers of people were living in clean, modern homes, a world away from the slums they had grown up in. But it happened because the political will was there to do it.

Our Housing Disaster – and what we can do about it, by Julian Richer, is published by Richer Publishing and Media (£4.99)