The government’s white paper won’t reverse the decline of social housing

Not such a break with the past, then


On Sunday, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell toured the TV studios of the main political programmes with a mission to convince viewers that the emergent Tory housing policy, to be outlined in this week’s Housing White Paper, represented a break from long-term Conservative obsessions with home ownership.

The narrative presented by Barwell to Ridge, Peston and Neil yesterday morning stressed how the Tories will now focus on the growing millions of renters, especially young renters, rather than promote home ownership to the exclusion of all other tenures.

And to be sure, Barwell announced some limited help to private renters to combat short-term tenancies and unpredictable rent rises and the resultant insecurity. The Housing Minister also signaled moving towards tackling poor quality private accommodation and the often exorbitant fees charged by letting agents; although without firm commitment to statutory reform.  

However, there was little to suggest that social renting — the most cost-effective way of alleviating the nation’s housing crisis as argued by SHOUT, the campaign to save social housing — will be expanded; even though some limited efforts to enable local councils to build a few more homes may be announced.

Behind the rhetoric, it is likely that social housing’s long-term decline, beginning in 1979 with the election of the Thatcher-led government, will continue.

The ongoing eclipse of social renting will be brought about since there will be no recalibration of government housing development programmes away from starter homes and shared ownership towards social renting. Additionally, the Right to Buy will further denude the sector with limited replacement of sold social homes restricted to so-called ‘affordable rent’.

The main thrust of the Housing White Paper will be to encourage increases in the supply of new housing but very little of this will be really affordable it seems. As the Resolution Foundation has shown, increasing proportions of income are being spent on housing costs, indicating an intensifying affordability crunch.

Freeing up brownfield sites and releasing surplus government land, while increasing the density of housing developments in towns and cities, will be the main housing and planning policy instruments to increase supply.

House-building ‘quotas’ (the Tories still can’t face a return to Blairite targets) for all local councils will probably mean some development of the green belt and the wider countryside, where there will be a battle between those on low incomes clamouring for affordable housing in their villages and the traditional (and usually) older ‘Nimbys’.

In reality though, little rural land will be designated for residential development as new housing is crammed into urban settings.

The government is also trying to make its overall target of delivering one million new homes by 2020 more deliverable by moving from the number of homes completed (the traditional metric since the 1920s) to its preferred method of measurement of ‘net additional dwellings’ (including rehabilitation of older properties and conversion of office buildings into homes, minus demolitions).

This is likely to create confusion, as it did between Barwell and interviewer Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme yesterday. And so is the term ‘affordable’. Neil pressed Barwell on supplying a definition but the Housing Ministers stuck with the ‘up to 80 per cent’ of market rents designation.

Since housing supply and affordability are the two key and interrelated aspects of the nation’s housing crisis, any confusion over targets and definitions is pivotal to evaluating housing and planning policy achievements.

And realisation of a crude supply target will not solve this crisis if the housing provided is out of the reach of the incomes of those who need it. The reality is that the nation needs much more new housing at the lowest possible rental costs, with consequent savings on the housing benefit bill and eradication of poverty traps.

The unlikelihood of the Housing White Paper’s capacity to achieve the goal of providing more truly affordable housing is emerging before publication. Not such a break with the past then?

Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @kevingulliver

See: New homelessness legislation is welcome – but we need social housing to make it work

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.