The management consultant Peter Drucker was famous for saying “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, an observation which in the era of “Big Data” seems more apt than ever before. The profusion of data about housing means that it’s very easy to demonstrate the extent of Britain’s housing crisis, as three recent news stories demonstrate.
A million new homes?
The first of these numbers is not what it at first appears. Last week, the government made headlines when housing minister Brandon Lewis declared that it was adopting a new target of building a million homes in England by 2020. This target harks back to the golden age of British house building during the 1940 and 50s, when political parties used to make competing promises in their manifestos to build more new homes – although, unlike in that era, the government is not proposing to build most of them itself.
However, the key statistic which this story highlighted actually came out alongside the minister’s announcement. It was accompanied by a piece of research from the National Housing Federation which showed that only 457,490 new homes were built in England between 2011 and 2014, when the organisation estimated that 974,000 were actually needed; in other words, supply was equal to barely half the level of demand. So far, the government has produced no concrete proposals for how it hopes to reach its target of getting 1 million new homes built, and the National Housing Federation’s research emphasises the daunting scale of the task facing them.
A crumbling safety net?
The second statistic which demonstrated the scale of England’s housing crisis was the recent news that almost 100,000 children in England are now officially recognised as being homeless and are being housed in temporary accommodation. The number of individuals and households who are recognised as homeless has risen by 12% over the past year, and a third of these households had been rendered homeless by the ending of a tenancy in the private rented sector. This has been blamed on a combination of government changes to benefits, particularly Housing Benefit, which have suddenly made many more areas unaffordable, along with the general increase in rent levels.
Unfortunately, the state safety-net which protects people in such circumstances appears to be coming under ever-increasing strain as the social housing stock is further reduced, according to the third big number. This was the recent news that 1 in 3 English councils has not replaced a single home sold under the Right to Buy scheme since 2012, and just 8% of councils have managed to replace half their sold-off properties.
The Conservative government was elected earlier this year with a manifesto commitment to extend the Right to Buy policy to housing associations, which would give the opportunity to buy their own home to an additional 1.3 million tenants. The government has pledged that every affordable home which is sold-off will be replaced (supposedly using the profits from privatising the most valuable council homes which are still left in the social rented sector), but these figures clearly cast significant doubt over how realistic this pledge is. There appears to be a real danger that it will simply reduce the number of properties which are available to people who cannot afford to pay market rents even further, which given the deficiency of new house building and the increasing problem of homelessness, could have profound consequences for the adequacy of housing in Britain.
If Peter Drucker was correct, then at least we should be grateful that there is so much data available to show us the scale of the problems affecting Britain’s housing system, but unless these provide an effective wake-up call to action, they may simply serve as a chronicle of human misery instead.