‘Downsizing’ the housing strategy

Kevin Gulliver examines Grant Shapps' housing plan and finds it lacking


Monday’s announcement by housing minister Grant Shapps, proposing to help elderly home owners to transfer letting and maintenance of their properties to councils in return for supported accommodation, has received a lukewarm reception from the housing world.

The media hasn’t known what to make of it, with the Daily Mail labelling the proposal as ‘socialist’ while the Telegraph cautiously welcomed it.

The equity release industry was understandably troubled.

This ‘downsizing’ initiative, however, although one of the more progressive in a seemingly limitless stream of often contradictory coalition housing initiatives, is no substitute for provision of new social housing as part of a coherent, national housing strategy.

The scale of today’s housing problem, which is growing daily, can be seen in ballooning waiting lists of 1.8 million households, growing homelessness, social housing development reaching an all time low, a stagnant housing market and lack of sufficient mortgage finance for first time buyers, spiralling private sector rents and out of control housing benefit bills; all symptoms of an underlying malaise – a lack of affordable supply underpinned by bricks and mortar, public subsidies.

Even Lib-Dem Lord Stoneham, who tabled and opened the housing debate in the House of Lords on Thursday, felt the need to explain the government’s housing failings:

“Housing needs to be higher on our national agenda. So many issues impinge on it and it underpins everything in society. There is a huge demand for more housing to be met. And we are not meeting it.”

“I believe the government is right to review the housing strategy, and the document has some encouraging schemes, but it’s a bit like a box of liquorice allsorts. It’s all full of very tasty items, but is not a satisfying meal.”

To date, the coalition’s approach has been to improve the availability of mortgage finance at the margins, expand discounts for a revamped right to buy during the worst housing slump for a generation, push rents way above social levels while exerting unfair (and failing) downwards pressure on housing benefit, and demonising social housing tenants as rioters and scroungers alongside pushing working tenants out of the sector while giving working applicants preference on waiting lists.

I guess against this frenetic, irrational backdrop the modest proposal to help older people to ‘downsize’ to provide a few more social lets should provide mild relief.

A fundamental re-think of national housing policy is required of course.

The transfer of state subsidies away from bricks and mortar to rents in both the social and private sectors since the 1980s needs to be reversed.

A return to majority-public funded social housing investment would enable more homes to be built, see less public money going into the pockets of private landlords and financial institutions, facilitate greater employability of tenants through a reduced poverty trap and increased mobility.

And, as even the prime minister and communities secretary Eric Pickles have acknowledgedpublic investment in housing creates jobs, growth and homes.

See also:

Could the welfare bill signal the death of social housing?Thomas Sutton, December 22nd 2011

Shapps’s subprime stimulus is a bailout for housebuildersKevin Gulliver, November 22nd 2011

‘Back of a fag packet’ housing policy continuesKevin Gulliver, October 3rd 2011

UK housing market is an engine of inequalityKevin Gulliver, May 18th 2011

Housing Benefit changes will have “severe impact” on ScotlandEd Jacobs, February 9th 2011

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