'Housing crisis' poses challenge for political parties

Image copyright PA
Image caption The 'housing crisis' is posing a recurring challenge for successive governments

"The government must act!"

How often have successive administrations been told they need to get a grip of 'the housing crisis' to prevent an entire generation from being, in effect, priced out of the market?

That has to be one of the most over-worked descriptions of how politics can turn pernicious.

But the social problems surrounding the shortage of affordable accommodation have repeatedly shown how quickly they can turn politically lethal.

Toxic issue

The last Labour government had its own taste of poison with the ill-fated "ecotowns" initiative.

Remember 'Middle Quinton'?

It was supposed to deliver 6,000 new zero carbon homes including 2,000 affordable houses near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire.

But the accustomed tranquillity of 'Shakespeare Country' was shattered by armies of thousands of angry locals storming across their beloved fields in protest. The idea was discreetly buried.

Also under Labour came the Regional Spatial Strategies, including one for the West Midlands envisaging 365,000 new homes.

It was unceremoniously dumped by the coalition government.

Proof if ever it were needed that for governments offering the prospect of new housing developments in or near the proverbial 'back yards' of their electorates, the effects are likely to be, yes, toxic.

Maybe this is why ministers are using the banner of localism to devolve most of the responsibility (or should that be 'the blame'?) to local authorities.

'Over to you'!

In return, councils are being promised cash incentives.

Empty homes

If they grant permission either for new homes to be built or for empty ones to be brought back into use, the government will match the local authority's Council Tax 'take' on each property for six years.

The independent charity Empty Homes says there are currently 73,538 homes standing empty in the West Midlands region alone.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Getting onto the first rung of the housing ladder is difficult in the current economic climate

More than 28,000 of them have been unoccupied for more than six months.

And particularly for young home seekers looking for an affordable first step up onto the housing ladder, the climb appears to be getting steeper all the time.

The National Housing Federation represents a variety of social landlords including housing associations.

It says that over the past 10 years in the West Midlands property values have risen three times faster than earnings and social housing waiting lists have lengthened by 64%.

This is why they say it is not an overstatement to call it 'a housing crisis'.

Shared ownership

Bromsgrove in Worcestershire is inevitably one of the property hot spots where values have generally risen whatever the condition of the economy as a whole.

BBC Hereford and Worcester's politics reporter Tom Turrell has been there to talk to some of the people struggling to get their first foothold on the housing ladder. Among the initiatives being presented by housing associations, shared ownership enables home buyers to begin with a relatively small, or affordable, stake in their new homes.

This offers them the prospect of increasing their share as and when their circumstances improve.

You will be able to see his report on this weekend's Sunday Politics when I will be joined in the studio by:

  • Gemma Duggan from the National Housing Federation;
  • a leading Liberal Democrat member of a district council in another high-value property area, Stratford-upon-Avon;
  • UKIP MEP for the West Midlands, Mike Nattrass.

And I hope you can join me too from 12.00 on BBC One on Sunday, 15 April 2012.

Keep up with me on Twitter: PatrickBurnsBBC