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Opinion: Heidi Allen on the Cambridge housing crisis and why we need more social housing

Heidi Allen, the former MP and CHS Group board member, writes for the Cambridge Independent.

More people than ever are struggling to find a safe, secure and affordable place to live.

MP Heidi Allen Q&A, Cambourne Village College. Picture: Keith Heppell.
MP Heidi Allen Q&A, Cambourne Village College. Picture: Keith Heppell.

In the UK, more than one million households are waiting for social homes, and last year alone, 29,000 social homes were sold or demolished, with less than 7,000 being built.

As a board member of Cambridge Housing Society (and I dare say a former local MP, known to have a view or two), I was invited recently to speak at the National Housing Summit in Birmingham on the challenges facing social housing in the UK.

To put it simply - we need more quality and affordable housing in the UK, particularly homes to rent, and we need them now. Surely, to anyone who lives in our part of the world, it is obvious to expect a government policy on the issue? Or at the very least, a long-term funding model? Sadly, we have neither…

On that basis therefore, just how are housing associations like ours supposed to achieve our entire raison d’etre of providing affordable homes and helping local communities without an ounce of support from 10 Downing Street? As an MP I knew we had a problem, but now sitting on this side of the table, I have to tell you it’s got worse.

Something has got to change. If the situation remains as it is, we will see more and more cases of overcrowding, homelessness, poverty and even greater inequality. And if that doesn’t motivate you, then what about the risk of popping the economic miracle bubble that is Cambridge and its powerful economic sub-region?

In an affluent city like Cambridge, with the average house price reaching almost £600,000, even those on good salaries are struggling to find an affordable place to live. It doesn’t take a biochemist to tell you that if the lab technicians of AstraZeneca or the junior doctors and nurses of Addenbrooke's and Royal Papworth Hospital can’t afford to live here, then we have a problem.

We have some of the most innovative, global leading technological businesses, but we won’t keep them if their staff can’t afford to live here. You would think that the government’s ears would prick up to that headline.

To turn around this housing crisis, we need a national strategy and the right financial backing; subsidised housing needs to be subsidised. It really is that simple.

As a housing association we make no profits and because the level of grant from government is so low, it means we have to borrow money from the private sector to build new homes. As interest rates rise, so does the cost of this borrowing. In order to pay for that, it can mean our tenants have to pay higher rents. So, it is the low-income people of Cambridgeshire living in affordable homes, who are having to pay for new affordable homes. Yes, I know - read that bit again. Our low-income families are subsidising new affordable local homes because government isn’t providing anywhere near like enough support. This defeats the whole point of affordable housing.

Cambridge Housing Society does a brilliant job helping people and communities in and around Cambridgeshire, but we are shackled by a severe lack of support.

A decent, affordable home provides a foundation for life. A secure foundation provides for better physical and mental health and improved educational and employment outcomes. And that is surely in all our interests – community wise and economically.

To create change, and transform social housing, we need everyone to get involved. Hassle your MP, come together as businesses and innovators and mither the government, whether that be current or prospective. Get angry, get in touch and help us demand better for Cambridgeshire.

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