Selling expensive council houses can't accommodate the future

"What might be an appropriate tactical response in some cases could not be considered to be a comprehensive strategic solution."

According to the latest government figures, the number of households in England is expected to grow by 232,000 per year over the next twenty years. Last year, we completed just 109,000 homes, with rates falling again in the first quarter of 2012. How can we bridge this gap and what combination of tenures would best meet the needs of the population? With the economy in double-dip recession and access to mortgages constrained, most of these homes need to be for rent, although an element of housing for sale, possibly using a rent now, buy later model, would help to ensure more balanced communities.

A recent Policy Exchange report proposes that the volume of affordable housing could be increased by at least 80,000 homes per year by selling off social housing properties in high-value areas and replacing them with new homes in low-value areas. This might be an appropriate tactical response in some cases but could not be considered to be a comprehensive strategic solution to providing sufficient affordable homes.

There are a few difficulties with the Policy Exchange approach.

Firstly, it is a reactive approach that can only come into play once a home becomes vacant, so it is difficult to plan a new development when the timing of the cashflow to fund it is so uncertain. Inevitably, there would be a delay with fewer affordable homes available, before the new homes could be constructed.

Secondly, over the long term, we risk denuding high-value areas of all affordable housing, pushing families on lower incomes away from their places of work, reducing their disposable income and putting additional pressure on the transport system. It would also create greater pressure on public services in low-value areas. Having said that, many social landlords are making judgements about the appropriateness of their existing stock as they become empty, so this approach is already in place in some areas. Alternatively the homes may be retained by the landlord but let at 80 per cent of the market rent, which would generate a better income stream for the landlord while retaining the housing mix in the area.

The efforts of the coalition government to encourage house building, by streamlining the planning system and giving some support to stalled schemes, have failed because they are largely relying on the private developers to deliver the increase and they will only build where they can make a profit, difficult when first-time buyers find it so difficult to access mortgage finance. There are few private companies undertaking development for rent so this is a gap in the market that social landlords could exploit, at the same time as making a significant contribution towards bridging the gap between the number of new homes and new households.

Housing associations have access to relatively cheap finance, they have established development teams who know their areas and have good relationships with local councils, and they have the scale and housing management expertise to manage a large portfolio of rented stock efficiently. Under the current Affordable Homes Programme, most new affordable housing is being let at 80 per cent of market rent, well above social housing rent levels in most areas. This model requires relatively little capital subsidy (in many cases, none) but the higher rent levels are increasing the housing benefit bill for households on low incomes. Indeed the properties in high-value areas could be relet at market or sub-market rates and the cashflows from these used to support borrowing to build more homes.

Using their scale, financial strength and community knowledge, housing associations should be able to increase the volume of new rented housing without subsidy, while still being able to let at rents a little below the market rent level. These should be secure homes in which families could remain long-term without the fear of being pushed out at the end of a fixed-term tenancy introduced under the current regime. There would also be no requirement to means test the tenant population to identify the high earners who would be paying higher rents under the proposed “pay to stay” policy.

The government has begun to recognise that increasing the rate of house-building would also have a significantly positive effect on the economy, reducing unemployment and largely sourcing materials from within the country. An announcement is expected soon that the government will guarantee housing association loans, enabling them to further reduce the cost of capital and thus their costs of development. This is an opportunity to scale up the delivery of new homes for rent well above the level envisaged in the Policy Exchange report.

A man walks in late afternoon sunshine on the Heygate housing estate near Elephant and Castle on February 11, 2010 in London, England. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Mansfield is a managing consultant at Hargreaves Risk and Strategy, a consultancy working in the housing association sector.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.