In a stark illustration of the UK’s growing housing crisis, data shows that waits of two years or longer are now commonplace in some authorities, while one in five people have waited 10 years or more for a home in at least three areas.
Polly Neate, CEO at housing charity Shelter, said the findings showed that “Far too many families are waiting far too long for the chance of a social home”, and called on the government to urgently build more council houses.
The Big Issue sent freedom of information requests to the 10 councils in England with the highest demand for council homes as of 2021 – Liverpool, Wakefield, Brent, Newham, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth.
Nine out of 10 authorities responded to the request in full, with Wakefield Council rejecting the request, saying its social housing stock was transferred to a housing association in 2005. Birmingham Council only supplied figures dating from 2017 onwards.
The data showed the longest wait for a social home was more than 50 years in Newham, Sheffield and Leeds. One person in Sheffield has been on the waiting list for 62 years.
Most councils responding to The Big Issue said people on the waiting list don’t have to bid for a home, and that these decades-long “waits” are likely people who are not actively searching for somewhere to live.
In all nine council areas, at least 20 per cent of people stuck on the waiting list have been on it for two years or longer.
In some London authorities, two-year waits for a home are now standard, with 91 per cent of people on waiting lists in Tower Hamlets, 80 per cent in Greenwich, and 79 per cent in both Lambeth and Brent waiting for at least two years.
“Our goal is to make 1,700 new council homes available to families by 2028,” she added. “Although we’re already well on our way to hitting that target, the rising cost of materials and Brexit is a big challenge all local authorities are now grappling with and we’d urge national government to give the resources and support we need locally to continue to tackle the housing crisis.”
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said it was the “most densely populated” borough in England and was “working hard to cope with the rise in population”.
They said the borough built more affordable houses than any other London borough in the five years up to 2021 and have launched a tool to help low-income households find affordable housing in the borough.
More than 100,000 people across all nine councils contacted by The Big Issue have waited for a home for two years or longer. Many of those waiting are forced to live in poor-quality, “temporary” homes with little security in the interim.
Mabinty Kabba, a support worker living in temporary accommodation, has been on a council house waiting list in Southwark, south London, for more than three years.
She is currently housed in temporary accommodation in Croydon with her three children after being moved from Elephant and Castle, where her children attend school and most of her social network lives.
It’s the third time Kabba and her children have been moved in three years, and in temporary accommodation, they could be moved again at any time.
Conditions in all three places they’ve lived have been abysmal, Kabba says. In her previous home she fell down narrow stairs and hurt herself, and now lives in a second-floor flat with no lift, making the pain worse.
“The whole flat is damp. Most appliances are broken. My daughter was recently diagnosed with asthma after living here, and the conditions make my other daughter’s eczema worse,” she said, adding that she herself has suffered from high blood pressure from the stress of the situation.
Kabba says that Southwark Council “has not communicated” with her about finding a permanent home, and regularly logs on to bid for homes online only to find there are none with enough bedrooms available.
Currently her children are forced to travel a long distance on a tram, train and bus to reach their school, affecting their education.
“My daughter missed an exam once because her train was late”, she said.
Kabba says she feels “helpless” about her situation, worrying about how the disruption and sub-par conditions in her home are affecting her children.
“You lose hope, you lose trust, you lose everything,” she said. “Councils need to consider what this is like for families. Children shouldn’t be subjected to this.”
“We need high quality, safe, secure family-sized council homes, especially three-, four- and five-bed council houses. This is the only way to solve the housing crisis and reduce housing waiting lists,” she added.
Councillor Darren Merrill of Southwark Council said:
“We do everything we can to keep households within borough, but the scale of the challenge often prohibits this. In Southwark alone, we have over 16,500 households on our waiting list for a council home, with half of these families including children.
“We introduced our Good Homes Standard last year, but often private sector temporary accommodation does not meet the standards of our own social housing. We continue to increase the supply of high-quality homes with one of the biggest council home building programmes in London.”
Regarding Ms Kabba’s situation, Cllr Merrill said: “We are in contact with the provider and will be speaking to the family to ensure any disrepair is resolved as quickly as possible.”
In England as a whole, the number of people waiting for more than two years for a home will be much higher than 100,000, with more than 300 different councils responsible for housing and around a million people currently waiting for a home.
In some council areas like Hackney local authorities have courted controversy by removing people from waiting lists to keep numbers to a manageable level.
In Hackney’s case this involved removing households with the lowest priority from the list last year.
Waits of 10 years or more, however, were common in some council areas. In Tower Hamlets, 28 per cent of people on a waiting list of 21,884 have been on it for at least a decade.
In Sheffield, where the waiting list stands at 20,901, almost 6,000 people (27 per cent) have been on the register for 10 years or longer.
Across all nine local authorities, data showed 32,471 people have been on a waiting list for housing for at least 10 years.
Long waits for social housing are largely due to the chronic under-supply of social homes.
Social housing stock has dwindled over the last few decades thanks to a combination of the Right to Buy policy, demolitions and a lack of new construction by local authorities.
This decline has pushed many poorer households into often unsuitable private tenancies, with fewer rights than they had in their previous homes.
Housing campaigners have long called for a fresh programme of social housebuilding to tackle the housing crisis. The Conservative 2019 manifesto targeted building 300,000 a year in England alone. They’ve got nowhere near that figure and before he was sacked, housing secretary Michael Gove was reluctant to commit to it in an interview with The Big Issue.
Neate added: “We aren’t building anywhere near enough new social homes to keep up. Last year less than 6,000 new social homes were built, far less than were sold off or demolished, we’re in a net negative.
“To correct this imbalance the government needs to put housing at the heart of the Levelling Up agenda and commit to building the new generation of social homes we urgently need.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling up, Housing and Communities said: “Since 2012 the number of households on social housing waiting lists has fallen by over 660,000.
“We’ve also delivered more than 598,900 affordable homes, including over 150,000 for social rent, and are investing £11.5 billion to build up to 180,000 more.
“The government is committed to the Right to Buy, which has helped nearly two million council tenants to realise their dream of home ownership and we will make sure the scheme is designed in a way that allows 1:1 replacement of homes sold.”
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