Housing has dominated this week’s news agenda. On Monday Michael Gove announced his new “long-term plan for housing”. On Tuesday, government released statistics that showed there are 131,370 children living in temporary accommodation – the highest level since records began. A reasonable person might ask: how will Michael Gove’s long-term plan make a difference to those children?
The housing crisis in this country is worsening. It is caused by decades of short-term, often contradictory policymaking and chronic under-investment. In 2010, funding for affordable housing was cut by 63 per cent, including all funding for social rented homes. This was the biggest cut to any capital budget at the time. Although rules were later relaxed to allow some social rented homes to be built, this caused a catastrophic 81 per cent fall in delivery of new social housing. Last year around 7,500 were built, compared to nearly 40,000 back in 2010.
At the same time, policies focused on increasing home ownership have made matters worse. A 2020 London School of Economics study found that Help to Buy increased house prices rather than improving affordability. Fewer than a quarter of the social homes sold under the Right to Buy have been replaced, intensifying the shortage and increasing demand for social housing, and the cost of private rented homes is soaring. All this has meant there are more than four million people in need of social housing in England.
It’s good that Gove is thinking long-term and there were certainly positive aspects to his plan – including changes to funding rules so that money for new affordable homes could also be used for regeneration; the promise of greater regulation and reform of the private rented sector; and the new Social Housing Regulation Act, which will enable tenants to better hold their landlords to account. There was also some funding to increase the capacity within the planning system, which is much needed. That said, the government’s plan also fell short on a number of counts.
What should a long-term plan for housing look like? To solve this crisis, we need a joined-up, properly funded plan with some clear, ambitious goals. A plan that supports collaboration, risk pooling and investment, and which ensures some accountability for getting it done. Crucially, any serious long-term plan for housing would have something to say about reducing the number of children living in overcrowded homes and temporary accommodation.
Committing to build one million homes over this parliament is all well and good, but we need to be building the right types of homes in the right places. We must assess the local need for homes, infrastructure and transport in every part of the country, in rural and urban areas. This is vital to ensuring rural communities can continue to exist. Brownfield land should be prioritised but some greenbelt land will need to be built on. This does not mean “concreting over the countryside” as not all of the greenbelt is particularly green.
We should ensure homes are genuinely affordable and accessible to people on lower incomes. This means building 90,000 social rented homes each year to address the existing shortage, and any long-term plan must provide the funding to achieve this. Building social housing saves taxpayers’ money in the long run. The housing benefit bill has doubled since the early 2000s, largely due to a lack of new social housing being built, and annual spend on temporary accommodation and other homeless services has risen by 61 per cent in the last five years.
We should ensure everyone has access to a safe, decent and affordable home. That means investment in existing homes. We have some of the oldest, least energy efficient homes in Europe. Some for these homes need significant work to make them decent and energy efficient, while others need to be knocked down and rebuilt. This will require funding for both regeneration and retrofit. Making our homes efficient is also key to reaching the UK’s net zero targets – England’s homes produce more carbon each year than all of its cars.
We know the public supports this type of housing plan. A YouGov poll commissioned by the National Housing Federation last month revealed that over 80 per cent of people support building homes that are affordable to local people, and voters from all political parties said we should be building social housing above all other types of homes.
This proves that our politicians should not be shying away from meaningful commitments on housing, but the main political parties have yet to show how they intend to solve the housing crisis. As the general election approaches, we will continue to call on all parties to develop a long-term plan for housing, focused on building the affordable and social homes the country needs.