Before the death of Margaret Thatcher – rightly – overtook the political landscape, the dominant domestic issue was the battle over benefits, especially Housing Benefit. Yet arguing whether or not the tax-payer should be subsidising spare bedrooms for tenants, in a time of austerity, is obscuring the real issue: we face by far the worst housing shortages since World War Two. These are reflected in continuing exceptionally high house prices, typically seven times income (against a multiple of three to four times in past generations). Furthermore, rents are so high that over half of local authorities in England have a median private rent for a two bedroom home that is higher than 35% of median take home pay.
The sad truth is that young people at all economic levels see little prospect of ever enjoying the standards of housing their parents do. This is a national tragedy and it stems largely from the open door immigration policy of the last Labour government. Under Labour, on paper, 2.2 million more people settled in this country than left it – but, in reality, with the end of embarkation controls, the figure was almost certainly much higher. In just five years, the Government Actuary’s Department has raised its population estimate for 2051 from 69 million to a staggering 79 million.
We are also facing a wide range of other social problems stemming from overpopulation: overcrowded hospitals, roads and trains, a shortage of school places and both water shortages and, conversely, flooding - since many recent houses were built on flood plains - as we continue to protect attractive uplands from development. England is Europe’s most overcrowded country and land is a zero-sum game; if incomers buy, or occupy, more land, existing citizens have less. Ironically, many of the solutions to overcrowding (new roads, railway lines, reservoirs, schools and airport runways) often compete with housing for precious land. They also place a crushing further burden on the public purse - and on the shoulders of families already crippled by housing costs.