Blaming private landlords for the £9.3bn of housing benefit paid to them each year (see today’s Guardian article) is like blaming Heinz for the spread of food banks. We live in a country where successive governments have stepped away from building homes and have instead relied on the private sector to invest and deliver what’s needed.
Nobody would disagree on the issues: we need more housing and a better approach to urban planning. But we also need a more realistic approach to the debate around things.
It may be true that large swathes of buy-to-let housing is poorly maintained. But the same is true of social housing. It may also be true that private landlords enjoy tax breaks around mortgage interest that need reform. Any suggestion however, that things would be better without the supply of buy-to-let homes we have is beyond ridiculous.
What we actually need going forwards is an honest conversation that looks at the fundamental issue: how we increase supply. This will come from a concerted effort to tie-up the public sector – which owns tons of land – and long-term investors seeking a shelter from volatile markets around the world. Global cash has poured into Britain over recent years for this very reason.
British councils, the NHS and Ministry of Defence own thousands of sites which could support millions of homes. Building many of these for rent would provide the state with long-term income which could be ploughed back into services. A greater number of more professional landlords would up standards. A more balanced housing sector would even out volatile price hikes, while planning reform could enhance the supply of affordable housing.
What’s also certain is that the blame game helps nobody move forward.