05 May

Homes fit for Heroes Re-building Britain – What would Winston say?

This week as well as clapping for key workers we’ll be celebrating 75 years since VE day. In 1945 all political parties knew housing would have to be a priority to build a better Britain and the same is true today. As Churchill said ‘We shape our buildings – thereafter they shape us’.

His Government went on to exceed Labour’s post war record by building 350k homes in 1955, compared to the Labour Government’s post war average of 200k a year.

I’m a housing professional and a Churchill Fellow. Last year the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funded me to carry out research to see what lessons we can learn from housing in Germany and the findings have just been published.

Germany has the largest private rented sector (PRS) in Europe – 40% of households rent and this rises to 70% in major cities. The PRS in the UK is catching up in in numbers as it has more than doubled over the last 20 years and houses 20% nationally, rising to 50% in parts of our major cities. But standards and affordability lag behind.

Overall Germany has a better PRS. ‘Better’ in the sense that it gives tenants greater security of tenure, more affordable rents, better standards and a stronger voice to advocate for their rights and represent their interests. And it is ‘better’ as a sector that supports and incentivises good landlords for the long term, thus improving local housing provision and sense of community. Crucially, Germany also builds twice as many more homes, including affordable ones, as the UK.

Some of the things we can learn from the German experience are:

  • Data transparency – Everybody knows the average rents in their

area as they are published and updated in a comprehensive local Rent Index (Mietspiegel). This gives landlords, tenants and local authorities good information and a more level playing field.

Excellent quality control – This information is used to help regulate rents effectively. Everybody knows the average rents for different types of accommodation and rents reflect this. It means rents in Berlin are typically 50% of equivalent lets in London.

A stronger voice for landlords and tenants – One of the surprises in my research was that landlords were as supportive of the German rent regulation system as tenants. They found it provides transparency, encourages good tenants and more sustainable rental income. Tenants have greater access to advice and advocacy through national self-funded tenants associations (Mieterverein). Plus landlords get more support than their UK counterparts through tax incentives and subsidies.

Stable and secure tenancies – We all value a stable and secure home – never more so than in the current lockdown. Yet, before the current temporary ban, most private tenants in England could be evicted with 2 months notice for no reason, and this will apply after the ban. In contrast Germany, and most of the developed world (including Scotland since 2017) have secure private tenancies where the grounds for eviction are based on breaking the rules eg rent arrears, damage to property etc.

  • Building more, including more affordable housing – Since the end of World War 2 Germany (West and East) has built twice as many homes – 30 million compared to 16 million in the UK. Part of the reason for this is a more diverse, localised housebuilding industry and stronger, better- resourced local government. Eg 1,200 regionally based house builders are active in 7 major cities. Compare this to the handful of national housebuilding companies in the UK who dominate the market and have an interest in keeping supply low and profits high.

All things we can learn from and implement in the UK.

When we come out of this national Coronavirus crisis we will need to rebuild a better Britain – a new normal.

The current crisis has exposed the unfairness and fragility of our current broken housing system. We clap for the NHS, care and other key workers every week. But the average wage for a nurse is £25k pa so with London rents averaging £1450 per month this would eat up 84% of their take home pay. They can get a handclap but they struggle to afford a decent home.

It’s good to see the G15 group of large housing associations joining together on the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ initiative to tackle this. And good to see London’s Deputy Mayor Tom Copley convening a housing task force to tackle the challenges Covid-19 poses.

Let’s make fixing Britain’s broken housing system and building homes fit for our new heroes and heroines a priority. So that it serves everybody fairly and establishes the building blocks to a healthier, happier and better-housed society.

Image is a photo of a mural by street artist Lionel Stanhope – it’s in Hillyfields, Brockley South East London. He has another similar mural nr St Thomas’s Hospital SE1 – in hour of our superheroes and superheroines  in the NHS during this time of Coronavirus.

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