Gale's View 06/03/2013
March 6th 2013
Before I became an MP my wife and I were fortunate enough to have jobs that enabled us to buy, on a sizeable mortgage, our own home in London. Over the years that house and its successor have provided a home for our three children and, on occasions, others who for a variety of reasons have found themselves in need of a roof over their heads. Our house is still well-used but if there comes a time when that situation changes then we shall have to address the situation then. I mention this not by way of any apology but because, in the light of what follows, there will be those who will be tempted to say “Well it`s all right for you; you are comfortably off”.
No, it is not alright for me because I know that there are far too many of the people that I represent that need better housing and it is my job to help them and I get no satisfaction at all from knowing that the need persists.
We have built too few family homes to meet the demand. Over the period of the last administration housebuilding fell to its lowest level for very many years and that has caused part of the problem that we face today. In East Kent, as in other coastal areas, the situation has been exacerbated by an influx of, in the 1980s, “Dole on Sea” claimants and, subsequently, by asylum seekers and illegal immigrants all requiring housing. As a result there are now hundreds of families whose housing is inadequate and children are being brought up under conditions that are quite simply not acceptable. We have to build more homes and we have to make available the land to build them on if we are to solve this problem.
We also do need to address the issue of under-occupancy. It is very many years since I first suggested that, given the number of elderly people occupying social housing long after the family had grown up and moved on, we should offer incentives to encourage people to move from three-bedroomed houses, for example, into sheltered housing offering security, warmth and companionship. At the time that proposal was received with outrage as “Gale wants to force people out of their homes”. Today, as a result of Central Government neglect, we are now having to face up to the fact that while many families are on long housing waiting lists others are still occupying social housing that has become superfluous to their reasonable requirements.
We have to wake up to the fact that social housing is there to meet a specific need for those who, for financial or social reasons, cannot buy their own houses or rent in the private sector. Social housing was never intended to be, and is not, a “right” to a cheap home in perpetuity. At the same time to simply say “Your house is too big for you so you must move” without taking into any account of suitable alternative accommodation or of emotional family ties, is unacceptable as a policy and if it were to be pursued, would end in tears.
The examples of the young soldier serving in Afghanistan, for example, who has nowhere other than the family home to return to, has to be taken into account when considering “occupancy”. Those elderly married couples who have been together all their lives but now for health or social reasons are unable to share a bedroom cannot be told that “you only need a one-bedroomed property”. And we have to recognise that there are people, like the lady who offers respite accommodation to an elderly Father in turn himself nursing a frail and sick wife, or estranged couples who need to be able to have their own children to stay on a regular basis, whose housing need remains greater than just the roof over their own heads.
The policy, to release under-occupied property for the use of families in need, is right but it has to be tempered with flexibility and a real recognition of the real needs of real people if it is not to be seen as harsh, unfeeling and impossible to implement. We have to address the issue but we have to do so with great care and sensitivity.