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.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.