In 1949 Aneurin Bevan answered questions in the House of Commons about the state of postwar housing. He informed MPs that the government had built 852,025 houses since the end of the Second World War. “I believe that one of the reasons why modern nations have not been able to solve their housing problems,” he said, “is that they have looked upon houses as commodities to be bought and sold and not as a social service to be provided.”
Seventy-Four years later and the United Kingdom is in the grip of a devastating housing crisis. In Northern Ireland, there are 44, 426 people on the social housing waiting list. The supply of private rented properties has declined. Rents in the private rented sector have skyrocketed. Property pal estimates that there are 60–70 people applying to rent one property at a time across Northern Ireland.
How did we get here? We have forgotten everything Bevan said in 1949. If we want to tackle the problem, we need to challenge the neoliberal consensus of the past fifty years.
The Westminster government and the Northern Ireland Assembly must make housing a key priority. Building houses, particularly social houses, must be top of the agenda. More funding must be provided to the Assembly to construct homes.
The housing crisis is compounded by urban planning in Northern Ireland. We need to use empty brownfield sites to build homes. Stop building expensive flats, hotels and student accommodation in areas of housing need. Regional disparity must be addressed in rural areas. Public-Private partnerships should be scrutinised. Working class communities should become key stakeholders in local planning decisions.
Austerity must be rolled back. Stop the bedroom tax. Abolish the local housing allowance and the shared room rate. Abolish the two-child tax credit limit.
People often become landlords so they can plan for their retirement. Seeing their properties as investments, they are often detached from their tenants and their role as housing providers. To stop tenants becoming fodder for landlords, the pension system should be overhauled. No-one should live in poverty in their old age. The social care system should be nationalised so people can get basic care for free.
The private rented sector must be reformed. Give tenants security of tenure by introducing indefinite private tenancies. Property standards should be increased. An effective system to punish landlords who breach the law should be implemented. Letting and estate agents should be heavily regulated. Stop multinational corporations from buying up properties. Reform the rates and council tax system so developers can’t landbank large swathes of land.
The idea that housing is a commodity is embedded into government and the economy. It’s going to take more than a few policies to tackle the underlying problem. Across the world, however, local communities are starting to fight back. Northern Ireland must be part of the fight.