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A partial debate about the housing crisis

Media narratives about the housing crisis concentrate too much on home ownership and not enough on social housing and homelessness, says Matt Dicks.

Many of you may have watched the BBC Wales The Hour programme last month, a debate programme which for this particular episode looked at the housing crisis in Wales.

I was lucky enough to be invited to be in the audience for the programme which was filmed in Cardiff. It was an audience made up of politicians, housebuilders, private landlords, current tenants, and those who had a story to tell about their own particular housing crisis.

If you caught the show, I’m sure you will agree that it was a robust debate with some lively discussion, and some unique and interesting perspectives on housing in Wales.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s great that our national broadcaster chose to dedicate a whole programme to a discussion about the housing crisis – it’s important that the wider public better understands the predicament we are in, not only across Wales but across the whole of the UK. As CIH chief executive Terrie Alafat said at our UK Housing conference recently: ‘The number of people without a home is a national disgrace.’

But for me it was interesting to see how the programme, and the debate, was framed, and the wider implications that has for how the national debate on addressing the housing crisis is framed.

The first half-hour of the programme was dedicated to home ownership and about how young people weren’t able to get on the property ladder, having to rely on the bank of mum and dad to rustle up the deposit.

‘How do we take the heat out of the property market?’, ‘we need to build more homes for sale’, and ‘the right to buy was a good policy’ were among some of the contributions.

It was broken up slightly as we heard about people’s experiences of private rented accommodation, hearing from students about how their accommodation was of a poor standard, and landlords letting themselves into the property without giving notice.

Yes there are bad landlords, as there are bad teachers or doctors, and we need to address any poor practice, but if we are to solve the housing crisis we need to work positively with a sector that now accounts for around 15 per cent of the rented housing stock in Wales, and that’s only going to increase.

But my wider point is this – whilst the fact that a whole generation is being priced out of the aspiration of home ownership and that some people renting in the PRS have a bad story to tell is an Important part of the discussion, should it really be the focal point of the debate about the housing crisis in Wales?

At around 35 minutes into the programme we eventually heard from the young woman who, when pregnant, became homeless and had to be housed in a hostel where she felt unsafe. She gave birth and still could not find suitable and affordable accommodation.

It struck me that this was, this is, the personification of the housing crisis and that we should have started the programme with this and discussed the direct causes: the severe shortage of accommodation at social rent, let alone intermediate rent; a welfare reform programme that is biting hard and forcing people onto the streets; and uts to and uncertainty around housing support services.

The only contribution about addressing the issue of supply of the right type of social housing, one of the fundamental causes of homelessness came, with a thoughtful contribution from CHC’s Stuart Ropke. And we didn’t get on to the important role that support services play in addressing rough sleeping in particular until Frances Beecher from Llamau had to interject to make the point. Again little time was spent analysing that.

This is not meant as a criticism of the BBC and neither I, nor CIH Cymru, is opposed to the aspiration of home ownership. It’s an important part of our DNA as a nation, but the fact that the debate was heavily centred on home ownership suggests a wider problem in how the narrative of our ‘housing crisis’ Is being framed.

There was further evidence of this at the UK Housing conference in Manchester this week when a panel of three senior political commentators, Tim Shipman (The Times), Poly Toynbee (The Guardian) and Steve Richards (BBC) all agreed that the Conservative government was focussed on home ownership rather than building the numbers of social housing that we need – one suggested that there will be something in the Green Paper about Right to Buy.

The point is that if the fact that more than 60,000 people are on social housing waiting lists in Wales, that tens of hundreds are sleeping rough on our streets, that in some parts of Wales large numbers of people can’t afford social rent and that there’s a chronic undersupply of social stock is not the starting point of any debate/conversation we have about the ‘housing crisis’ then we will never meet the requirement of any civilised society in ensuring that everyone has a safe place to call home.

Matt Dicks is director of CIH Cymru. The Housing Crisis episode of The Hour is on iplayer until Thursday www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0b6tfsk/the-hour-19062018

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