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Social housing targets are achievable — with political will

Noises out of the new Prime Minister’s administration indicate they will shift towards home ownership and away from social housing, but this approach would be wrong, writes Ken Jones, former Director of Housing.

I am sure that there will be many like me, who had hoped that over the last two years a consensus was emerging across the political spectrum on the pressing need for a significant increase in the supply of truly affordable rented homes.

This consensus expanded the role of councils as providers of many of these new homes, as made clear by the then Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse just a few weeks ago.

The foundations for that consensus were built upon the decades of under supply of new homes of all tenures. This produced a dysfunctional housing market and increasing numbers of households left with no option other than to enter the private rented sector.

Policy positions

Two events in 2017 intensified the movement to reinstate councils as housing suppliers and innovators; the General Election campaign saw housing rise up the national agenda as a priority and the tragedy of Grenfell exposed the failings of recent housing policy.

Government policy positions were reversed during this period. The ill-thought-out High Value Property Levy to be imposed on councils’ housing stocks (in order to fund an extension on Right to Buy discounts to housing associations) was dropped.

The cap on council borrowing in their housing revenue accounts was removed and the social rent cut policy was ditched. The combined impact of these measures should see a major increase in traditional council house building, for which the Local Government Association had long campaigned.

Was this just a false dawn though? The early pronouncements of the new Prime Minister and his ministerial team seem to place dominant emphasis on home ownership, with no mention of the part social housing needs to play in resolving the mounting pressures on communities across the nation.

It’s worth reflecting that in 1975, 82% of government housing expenditure was dedicated to building new homes with just 18% going to rent and mortgage subsidies.

By 2015/16 the position was reversed with 95.7% spent on Housing Benefit and only 4.3% on supporting new builds. It’s no coincidence that before 1980, the nation had 6 million council homes, today the figure is less than 2 million. The great bulk of the housing benefit subsidy ends up going to the burgeoning number of private landlords as rents in the private sector have risen.

Desperate need

A direct consequence of the great reduction in council housing has been that in London and most towns and cities in England, only households in the most desperate need, sometimes with complex problems, can access a home from their council.

People in work, who in previous generations would have been allocated a home, are now locked out of social housing. This inevitably has led to council estates and social renting being stigmatised.

If we want to facilitate a better functioning economy, improve health and wellbeing and ensure that those who work in our vital public services and people in modestly paid jobs can afford to live reasonably close to their workplaces, we need a sea change in housing supply.

That includes an increase in council and other social housing; towards the Shelter target of 3 million truly affordable new homes over 20 years. An expanded provision of social rented housing would mean that the national bill for housing-related benefits would be cut.

Putting all our eggs in the home ownership basket will bring about a return to the situation that caused the dysfunctional housing market conditions that the nation now suffers from.

Beyond these issues, if we really want to do something positive and practical to address the scandal of over 83,000 households living in forms of temporary accommodation (comprising 320,000 people including 120,000 children) in the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, then we also need those new council and social rented homes to be built.

The target set by Shelter is ambitious but not unachievable, in the two decades following World War Two the nation managed it. All that’s needed is the political will.

Photo Credit – Isobel Ashford

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