Stand upright and be strong

There was some good news for uk housing last week, with evidence both of growing concern about the housing crisis and growing support for housebuilding, writes Colin Wiles.

First, a survey by IPSOS MORI showed that three quarters of the public (but only two thirds of MPs) agree that “there is a housing crisis in Britain”. As with previous surveys, the proportion who believe there is a crisis in their local areas is much lower – 48 percent for the general population and 40 percent for MPs. Given that MPs spend much of their time dealing with housing problems it seems perverse that fewer of them believe that the country has a housing crisis than the public as a whole, but perhaps that shows the undue influence of the nimby electorate in some areas (more on this below). But 86 percent of MPs disagreed with the statement that “there isn’t much that British governments can do to deal with Britain’s housing problem’’. So our politicians appear to recognise that they have the power to solve the crisis, even though they appear to have done precious little about it in recent years.

The second item of good news was a report, via Shelter,  showing that the level of opposition to new homes is falling across all voter groups. Research from the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that the level of opposition to new homes had fallen significantly between 2010 and 2013. In 2010 not one voter group expressed overall support for more homes being built in their local area, but by 2013 every voter group supported new homes in their locality. This decline in NIMBY opposition to homes cuts across all age groups and was particularly marked among the 55-65 and the 65+ age groups, the demographic  who tend to be most active in opposing new homes.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be reflected on the ground.  My impression is that the number of local groups opposing new homes has mushroomed over the past three years, since the implementation of the NPPF. I try to keep a track of these via the local press and twitter and have clashed with a number of them on occasion, often fruitlessly, but it’s important to keep engaging, I feel. Often their rhetoric is based on misinformation or pure emotion, rather than rationality. In some areas, they are even seeking election as councillors. For example in Uttlesford and the Surrey Green Belt. I hope they are walloped. Most of these groups are given a free ride, with the local press reporting their activities uncritically.

As with most things in life, it is often easier to get steamed up in opposition to something, but I have long wondered why there have been so few protests FOR housing rather than against it. For young people, in particular, the prospects of buying or renting anywhere affordable and decent are retreating and yet they appear to possess a general air of passivity and acceptance that the “powers that be” know best. They don’t, and we need to encourage a more robust approach. Be less polite, as Grainia Long once said.

But I sense a growing groundswell of housing activism. From the E15 mothers to the New Era estate, from a proliferation of local groups to last weekend’s March for Homes it is heartwarming to see people getting steamed up about housing issues, at last. Everyone involved in UK housing has a job on their hands to encourage and support this activism. We can best do this by repeating key facts about the housing crisis and trying to break down the walls of ignorance that surround any discussion of housing matters. But we also have a duty to engage with the wider world and those groups that oppose housebuilding. We also need to be much better at standing up for the affordable housing sector and to trumpet its proud achievements.

For the SHOUT campaign, it is not enough just to support new housebuilding. Of course, we endorse the Homes for Britain campaign, how could we not? But we need to make the case that affordability needs to be central to any surge in housebuilding. That is why our core message of investing in at least 100,000 social rented homes each year in England needs to be repeated again and again and again.

With barely 90 days until one of the most important elections in a generation every day counts.


(Note: This blog was also posted on the Inside Housing website on 04/02/20115, with the exception of the penultimate paragraph)

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