May tells Johnson: Build more ‘truly affordable homes' and make housing top priority

In a rare intervention, the former Prime Minister said millions of families are facing a cost of living crisis. Credit: PA

Theresa May has called on Boris Johnson to build more "truly affordable" homes for rent and make tackling Britain’s “dysfunctional” housing market his central mission, as new research finds ‘Red Wall’ Conservative voters want building more social housing to be a government priority.

In a rare intervention, the former prime minister said millions of families are facing a cost of living crisis and admitted the focus on helping people becoming homeowners “has at times distracted from what should be our overwhelming priority as Conservatives: ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable and secure home.”

“The dysfunction in our housing system is deep-rooted, having developed over multiple decades and under governments of all stripes” added Ms May, and “addressing it fully remains one of the fundamental public policy challenges of our time”.

Ms May is supporting a new report by the centre-right think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) which found that 43% of private renters find it difficult to pay their rent and bills, with the housing benefit bill set to reach £30 billion in 2022.

An eight-month ITV News investigation has exposed the shocking state of Britain’s social housing and the chronic shortage of affordable homes that have left hundreds of thousands of families stuck in unsuitable - and at times unsafe - temporary accommodation.

An ITV News investigation unveiled the 'shocking' living conditions of thousands in council housing.

Despite the government insisting it is building more affordable homes, the new research by the CSJ found less than one in four people (24%) believe the government’s definition of affordable housing is truly affordable to local people.

The most affordable homes for rent are council and housing association properties, known as social housing. Yet in the year to April 2021, fewer than 6,000 social homes were built in England, down 12% from the year before, and 84,000 homes short of what Shelter and other housing organisations estimate is needed to meet demand.

In the foreword to the report “Exposing the Hidden Housing Crisis”, Theresa May said the crisis “is exacting a huge toll on our nation’s collective health, wellbeing and finances”.

“Taxpayers are now picking up the bill for decades of too few truly affordable homes being built. Next year, housing benefit expenditure is forecast to exceed £30 billion – and then to double again in the 30 years thereafter as more (and older) households see the more expensive private rented sector as their only option. We must put this right”.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May has warned of a cost of living crisis for millions of families. Credit: PA

Historically, Conservative governments have prioritised helping people become homeowners over building affordable homes for rent. In recent years, the government has preferred to rely on developers to build ‘affordable homes’ for rent, rather than helping councils and housing association build more social homes with cheaper rents.

Yet the CSJ has found new Conservative voters, who backed the party for the first time in 2019, want that to change.

Two-thirds of ‘New Conservative’, or ‘Red Wall Conservative’ voters (67%) say that social housing should be made a government priority, over twice as many as the Shire Tory segment who have constituted the traditional Conservative vote.

This is electorally significant, argues the CSJ, as 27% of the Conservative vote in 2019 was cast by ‘New Conservatives’, compared to 25% being cast by ‘Shire Tories.’

“There is no simple left-right divide in England on what is known as ‘social’ housing, following the seismic realignments in political affiliation seen in recent years,” said Andy Cook, Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.

“The CSJ’s latest polling suggests that there is considerable public support and a major opportunity for the government to reset the agenda on truly affordable housebuilding – and to address the social, economic and fiscal problems associated with the hidden housing crisis.

“Given the scale of disillusionment over current ‘affordable’ housing policy revealed in the polling, we recommend the government initiates a process of rapid evidence gathering to reshape social housing policy for the 2020s with the forthcoming Levelling Up white paper”.

Theresa May is calling on Boris Johnson to make building more affordable homes a central plank of his levelling-up agenda.

"The truth we must face up to now as politicians is that, while the pandemic shone a spotlight on many of the injustices in housing, these are not new. Building back better must include staring difficult problems in the face," she said.