Tory plans for Help-to-Buy are a dangerous distraction from our real housing needs

Whatever Theresa May says in her speech today, the Conservatives have got their priorities wrong by pumping billions into counterproductive housing policies.

Less than a fortnight since local government Secretary Sajid Javid promised a Green Paper on social housing, he published an article in Sunday’s Observer laying out Tory plans: ones which played to a rather different audience. 

And despite promises mooted today, the Tories have played to party activists in backing a £10bn boost to the Help-to-Buy scheme.

Those who attended the National Housing Federation conference in Birmingham on 18th September were heartened that social housing appeared to be back on the government’s agenda in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

And there was hope that the Green Paper announcement marked a pivotal moment when social house-building would move to the top of the political agenda.

But plans on Help-to-Buy equate to allocating yet more resources to stoke demand for home ownership, increasing house prices yet further – without directly building a single new home.

The promised £10bn could build at least 250,000 social rent homes, when borrowing by social landlords to top-up public subsidy is taken into account.

This would make a weighty contribution to the one million new homes by 2020 promised by the Tories back in 2015. Even that pledge falls short – the DCLG housing need calculation methodology points to a need for 266,000 home needed every year, while some housing market observers say that the real figure is closer to 300,000.

In reality, of course, Tory promises are illusory. Only about 290,000 homes have been built in the last two years, meaning 240,000 homes are needed in each of the next three years just to meet the one million home target.

Looking back at historic house-building trends exposes how difficult it is to reach 200,000 homes annually – let alone 266,000, without a mass programme of social house-building contributing at least of half of the building programme.

During the 1946 to 1979 period, for example, 51% of 8.4m new homes (250,000 yearly on average) were provided by social landlords – local councils and housing associations.

Since then, just 19% of the 5m completed homes (an average of 150,000 per year) have been social rent.

As the chart shows, at no time in the last three decades has house-building topped 200,000 annually, and from 1946 onwards, this was only achieved with a substantial contribution by social housing.

And while May’s words on council housing today offer some encouragement, the £10bn going on inflating a dangerous Help-to-Buy policy would be much better spent through investing in new council properties.

These are the essential truths that the Tories either fail to, or don’t want to acknowledge. Boosting Help-to-Buy is a worrying distraction from new public investment in social housing – and one which affects the whole sector.

Wrong priorities will only mean social housing will continue to decline, precariousness among social tenants will rise, targets will go unmet – and affordability of housing across the board will worsen further.

Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, and is former Chair of the Centre for Community Research. He is part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign, but writes in a personal capacity.

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