Isabelle Fraser – 8 JANUARY 2017
From the roof of the east London office of the charity Shelter, you can see the remnants of over a century of the capital’s housing policy. Old terraced houses, turn of the century estates, oppressive Sixties tower blocks, the Modernist grandeur of the Barbican, and the knot of skyscrapers in the City beyond.
Years before he became chief executive of Shelter, Campbell Robb lived in a Peabody estate, much like the one below. Well-built and available at affordable rents, these kinds of homes are increasingly unavailable for London’s burgeoning Generation Rent, which PwC estimated that will increase from 40pc in 2000, to 60pc in 2025.
Downstairs in Robb’s office, there is a poster with ‘Enough is Enough!’ written in big red letters, commissioned for the charity’s 50th anniversary this year. Shelter started life campaigning for the millions of ‘hidden homeless’, who lived in slums; it was the same year as Kathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s famous film about homelessness.
It is now a powerful voice calling for ways to help solve the housing crisis, and ameliorate conditions those renting privately or struggling to find anywhere to live. Recent victories include the Government’s announcement in the Autumn Statement to ban letting fees for tenants; the charity continues to campaign for long tenancies for renters and runs a helpline for homeless people.
Now, Robb is leaving his post after seven years in the top job to head up the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “One of the biggest challenges has been…to get enough people to recognise this was a housing crisis that was beginning to impact every bit of society. People thought it only affected certain kinds of people, the very poorest in slum conditions that Shelter was founded on,” he says. Since he joined, housing has made it way up the public’s priority list. When he arrived in January 2010, housing came in 18th on Ipsos Mori’s survey which finds the “single biggest issue” for Britons. In November 2016, it came fifth.
“The reason for that is affordability,” he says. The housing crisis “has spread to everywhere. It’s not just poor people, or those who are just managing, it’s right up there.” The average house price in the UK has climbed 29.4pc in the last seven years; in London it has soared by 69.6pc, far ahead of wage increases.
As a result, it has become a hot potato. “It’s a political issue that has become real for a lot of people across the country. Not just in Labour seats, but Conservative MPs have people in their constituencies who are saying my children can’t afford to buy,” he says. “We have a group of people who are in their 50s and 60s for the first generation since the Second World War, looking at their children’s housing prospects, and they are worse than their own.”
Not only is there political pressure coming from voters, but also from big companies.
Deloitte and KPMG both bought flats in the capital for their graduates to live in, and Shelter has teamed up with companies such as Starbucks to introduce a rental deposit scheme which workers can pay back, interest free.
It could have been even worse, he says. “In the last seven years, if interest rates had gone up by 2 or 3pc you would have seen a raft of repossessions like those in the 80s. You would have seen a crisis beyond what we already have. So in some ways housing policy has been lucky.”
This affordability crisis has been compounded by a “failure of certain policies”, he says, as well as the financial crisis and the austerity that followed. The previous governments, including New Labour and the coalition, all failed to build enough and put little focus on the supply side, he argues. They all “believed the way to solve the housing crisis was on the home ownership and on demand side, to effectively make money available cheaply through Help to Buy-type products, [which enables first-time buyers to purchase a home with a 5pc deposit] and less so in direct investment in house building.” Help to Buy was a crucial policy after the downturn, designed to get house builders moving again by stimulating demand. But that policy has continued, even while house builders are posting record profits once again.
There’s a problem with this model of solving the housing crisis, says Robb: “it’s broken”. “With the death of public housing and local authorities, the private house builders have had to carry that weight and they can’t,” he says. Part of the problem is due to the land market; the high cost of land forces developers to keep upping prices and making homes smaller. “You can’t criticise them for doing what they were set up to do, they are there to maximise profit for their shareholders,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into the best housing policy for Britain. That’s why you need more small builders, more land available – public and private – and you need public building”.
With the new Government, the rhetoric has changed noticeably. “This is a government that’s got more sense of a failed housing market than any of the previous ones,” he says. It has become more interventionist, even pinching policies from the Labour party’s manifesto, as was the case with banning letting fees. There is less focus on the importance of home ownership, and more money for affordable homes and talk of other types of housing, such as the private rental sector. Now, after seven years, the “house building budget has come back to what it was in 2008,” he says. “So we have seen a very big cycle”.
Part of the policy shift is a recognition that the market has changed remarkably during that time. “Over those seven years there was a massive growth of people in the rental sector, and the Government is finally catching up with the need to regulate that.”
Another change is the recognition of housing being a form of infrastructure, which Robb describes as “a big step”. “It’s never done that – it’s always separated it from roads and transport. They seem to finally recognise that investment will be an improvement to the economy like other types of infrastructure.”
Small movements and policy tweaks such as these are key to making up the deficit of homes that must be built, rather than big, sweeping changes, he argues. “It would be good if the Government had lots of different small things [planned for the upcoming housing white paper] because actually with a bit of investment, and a bit of policy and political will you can make this happen.”
Where others may see as an insurmountable challenge, Robb is hopeful about ending the housing crisis. “I am optimistic that it can be fixed. Having waited seven years, I have a government whose public pronouncements… are more nuanced and thought through than many of the previous governments’,” he says. With a promising Autumn Statement which promised billions to affordable housing, and a housing white paper on the way, “they may be swallows that don’t make a full spring but we can begin to hope that if they follow those things through, we might begin to see a start… I’m optimistic until I’m proven otherwise.”