Rhetoric or reality? Actions speak louder than words when it comes to housing provision


06 February 2017

This article explores the enduring problem of providing houses for the ‘working classes’ and links it to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently being debated in the House of Lords. It will be of relevance to those charities in the housing, infrastructure...

Theresa May in her January speech at the Charity Commission outlining her vision for a Shared Society included a response to tackling some of the current housing problems, including those of unaffordability and inappropriateness, by confirming the imminent launch of a new housing white paper “to boost supply, tackle the increasing lack of affordability and so help ordinary working people with the high costs of this most basic of necessities”. 

The need for high quality affordable housing was first addressed in the Housing, Town Planning etc Act 1909 which itself built on the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act. 

This article explores the enduring problem of providing houses for the ‘working classes’ and links it to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently being debated in the House of Lords. It will be of relevance to those charities in the housing, infrastructure and planning sphere.

In her speech, Mrs May acknowledged growing divisions between old and young, rich and poor leading to an injustice that ‘burns inside’. Politicians have never been short on rhetoric when it comes to the plight of the poor and needy and no one would argue with the sentiments expressed. The real challenge is turning aspiration into action and politicians have not demonstrated much success in this area. 

The 1909 Housing, Town Planning Bill was introduced on 5 April by John Burns, the Chair of the Local Government Board. Burns outdid Mrs May with his statement that “it is not fair, I say,… that roads should be formed at the wrong angle, that they should be placed where the sun rarely reaches, but where the wind does always,” and heralded the Bill as benefitting mostly the children “cursed... in their habitations and environment”.

More than 100 years later, the planning system has still not achieved the task of providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it. During the second reading of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill Lord Bourne described the current crisis as “a profound social failure”, Lord Kennedy was sure that the Bill would “not deliver… the genuinely affordable homes that are desperately needed” and Viscount Ridley stated that “land-use planning in Britain is not a joke; it is a disgrace”. 

Their Lordships also made a number of references to the long-promised White Paper and Lord Bourne stated that “the intention is that it should be with us before Report Stage”. However, the Government has been promising this White Paper since September, has delayed it two or three times already, and has still not set a date for its release. It needs to start walking its talk.

The content of this article is for general information only. To discuss the issues further please contact Sara Sayer or a member of Birketts' Charities and Social Enterprise Team.