A new future for social housing?

The crisis facing England’s social housing supply has been laid bare by a year-long commission launched after the Grenfell Tower disaster. Baroness Warsi, one of the cross-party commissioners, said: “Social mobility has been decimated by decades of political failure to address our worsening housing crisis. Half our young people cannot buy and thousands face the horror of homelessness. Our vision for social housing presents a vital opportunity to reverse this decay. We simply cannot afford not to act.”

The report titled ‘A vision for social housing’ published by the commission – convened by the housing charity Shelter – calls for 3.1 million more social homes over 20 years, equivalent to 155,000 each year. This contrasts starkly with recent figures that show only 6463 homes were built in England for social rent in 2017-18, down from almost 30,000 a decade ago. Moreover, it represents almost a doubling of the 2016-17 stock of social housing for 3.9 million households. Clearly, this change in strategy requires a “historic renewal of social housing” if it is to rescue millions of people from a future in dangerous, overcrowded or unsuitable homes (the report states “… most private renters face problems with their homes that can include electrical hazards, damp, and pest infestation. One in seven private rented homes pose an immediate threat to health and safety”).

Over recent years, Labour and Conservative governments have viewed the private rented sector as a solution to the housing shortage. Accordingly,there have been trends of rising prices, falling ownership and an expanding – but increasingly unfit – private rented sector, paid for by a rising housing benefit bill. The result is a crisis for those who rent, not through choice but because of the unaffordability of housing, and this has left millions in insecure and expensive rented accommodation. In England, about 1.15 million families were registered on the waiting list for social housing in 2017, with almost two-thirds waiting for more than a year. At the sharpest end of the crisis, 277,000 people are now homeless in England. The disparity between demand and supply of social housing is undoubtedly vast.

There are also problems of stigma and prejudice linked to social housing. When social renters have issues, their complaints often go nowhere and many feel powerless to influence the decisions made about their homes. And in the private market, the practice of refusing to rent homes to those receiving benefits is widespread. To help combat this, the report calls for the government to deliver social housing as part of mixed communities that do not visibly distinguish social homes from others in the same development, avoiding design which excludes or stigmatises, such as through different entrances for social renters.

The government has already launched a £9bn affordable homes programme to deliver 250,000 homes by 2022, which includes social housing, with an additional £2bn promised by 2028; however, the definition of ‘affordable’ homes has come under fire. For example, the report states that affordable rents for typical two-bedroom properties work out at 30% more expensive than social rents and that “these rent levels are completely out of reach for most people who are eligible for social housing.” The report also makes it clear that government plans aren’t going anywhere near far enough to solve the crisis.

In addition to increased house building, the report highlights the need for:

To fund this programme, the commission recommends that all political parties rediscover publicly built housing as a key pillar of our national infrastructure. The idea has been costed by Capital Economics at £10.7bn per year over 20 years, but on the other side of the balance sheet there would be savings to the £21bn annual housing benefit bill. In terms of a return, Capital Economics calculate that if funded in the early years through borrowing, the programme pays back in full over 39 years.

In its summary, the report concludes: “The time for the government to act is now… We believe this vision is the only way the government can meet its 300,000 target for new homes each year. It will provide an affordable, stable home for 3.1 million households. It will save £60 billion in benefit costs over thirty years… It will, more than any other change, properly address the housing crisis and give people hope for the future.” As always, metroSTOR will play an essential part in ensuring that residents’ safety and quality of life continue to be enhanced.