Can we trust political promises on social housing?

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

Our re-invigorated dancing queen Prime Minister put on her serious face this week to declare that her government is going to promote the building of more social housing.

Tens of thousands are to be built each year reaching a quarter of a million sometime in the next decade. I’m vague about the figures deliberately because governments tend to promise the moon one day and then forget what they promised a few years later. That quarter of a million might mean 10,000, maybe less.

I’ve heard these housing promises before from successive Labour and Tory Governments, yet we all know how disastrous the social housing situation is for families and the elderly. I do recall the days when nice, new social housing programmes were running throughout the country. Of course there were still waiting lists then and politicians were constantly asked to step up the building programmes. They never did. Then along came Margaret Thatcher promising those in social housing the opportunity to buy their home. It wasn’t long before many did just that leaving less social houses for those who couldn’t afford to buy. Successive governments continually reduced the number of social houses being built.

Our population rose dramatically aided by immigrants coming into the country leaving us as we are today with a chronic shortage of housing for working families and young people. Soaring rents have left many families living in unsuitable private accommodation with no hope of ever being offered a decent state owned house they could afford.

I have no doubt the growth of social housing in the fifties and sixties enhanced living standards and improved educational prospects for children. Yet politicians appeared not to get the message.

In those early sixties I was setting out on my journalist career which required me living away from home. Social housing wasn’t an option for singles so my first accommodation was a house in Ballymena shared with 10 others and the landlady, a delightful elderly woman who employed a cleaner. I missed the privacy and comforts of my family home and soon moved into a flat with three others, the coldest building on earth where the bathwater was about to freeze before you even got into it. My attic bedroom required coats on top of the bed for warmth at night. I was earning about £8 a week, my share of the rent was £3. In the flat we lived on bread and cheese and packet soup. Treasured weekends home meant good food and warmth.

It seems not a lot has changed half a century later for young people today. BBC research this week suggests rent is ``unaffordable’’ across two thirds of Britain for people in their 20s. Average rents for a one-bedroom flat are ``more than 30 per cent of young people’s salary in 65 per cent of postcode areas.’’ It’s worse in London where the figure is 55 per cent of monthly earnings. For families on low incomes the situation is perilous.

Then there is the problem for the elderly which Dame Esther Rantzen highlighted this week in the Daily Telegraph. The public she wrote don’t seem to care about the elderly. In the past, she writes families were geographically in easy reach of each other. Nowadays ``families are scattered around the country, so older people often end up isolated with nobody to have a cup of tea with’’.

While she applauds the rise of retirement housing in the private sector she says people ``need the security of appropriate housing’’ she says.

The rise of luxury, gated retirement homes is truly for the better off in society. Yet successive governments here haven’t even been able to keep up with the development of normal social housing for families and those attractive little developments we see here and there, suitable for the elderly. This government has encouraged the idea of the private sector elderly downsizing, leaving more homes for the younger generation. This is to muddy the waters of need. I would prefer they would interfere less in the private sector and concentrate on public sector housing. Politicians complain they cannot compete with the prices private builders are prepared to pay for land. That should be no excuse. Vesting land was popular in the sixties. Maybe it’s time to restore it.