Today saw the launch of the report – ‘To have or Have Not?’ - of the Housing Voice Inquiry , the progress of which we have covered on Red Brick before. As an independent report produced with the involvement of people from all the major political parties and all the major housing interest groups, it will hopefully carry some weight and increase the pressure for action.
The Inquiry Chair, Lord Larry Whitty, starts the report with an observation that housing policy over the last 30 years has been very different from the previous 30 years.
Unlike the eras of Aneurin Bevan, Harold MacMillan or Richard Crossman, government intervention in housing over the last three decades has primarily been linked to policies regarding change of tenure. We have witnessed Right to Buy and shared ownership schemes; changes of landlord or management, stock transfer and ALMOs; the decent homes standard and, in the owner occupied sector changes to process, with the ill-fated HIPS scheme, rather than any solid measures to increase supply. However attractive this tinkering might have appeared, now is clearly the time to focus on the main issue – the need for at least a quarter of a million new homes to come to the market, mainly through new build, each year for the next twenty years.
The central fact remains that we need to build new homes at twice the rate we are currently. It will require good construction standards and it can be done without either concreting over the countryside or ‘infilling’ in already overcrowded areas.
Policy makers need to give equivalent attention and esteem to all forms of tenure. Full freehold ownership is the preferred choice and aspiration for most people but not for all and is not attainable for many. We need to end the residualisation of social housing (and the demonisation of social tenants). And we need to have a constructive strategy for the Private Rented Sector which is certain to be of increasing importance in the decades ahead. We also need to ensure that the problems of leaseholders and the possibilities of new forms of individual and collective tenure warrant the consideration they deserve by policy makers.
The report stresses the urgency of the housing crisis and the need for an emergency response which goes way beyond last week’s announcements. Its proposed emergency package includes an increase in the HCA programme to restart building for social rent, the use of finance from the QE (quantitative easing) to buy housing bonds, and an acceleration of the release of public land for affordable homes.
In the medium term, and focusing on the next Spending Review, the report recommends changes to the public borrowing definitions to enable more housing investment, a further increase in the affordable housing budget, a strengthening of the statutory duty on councils to plan to meet needs, a review of the tax treatment of private landlords as a quid pro quo for better tenants’ rights and better enforcement, together with a new statutory system of regulation of private renting.
For the longer term, the Inquiry identifies a range of issues that need to be resolved on a cross-party basis so that there can be a consistent long range policy to encourage more investment, and recommends that a National Commission on Affordable Housing should be established to resolve these issues.
The report criticises the unhelpful confusion around the term ‘affordable’ especially since the Government introduced ‘affordable rent’ homes at 80% of market rent. There was a lot of support at the launch for the commonsense ‘Whitty definition of affordablility’, which is: comfortable, secure homes in sound condition that are available to rent or buy without leaving households unable to afford their other basic needs (e.g. food, clothing, heating, transport and social life).
If the report is a lament that the focus of housing policy on building new homes to meet household demand has been lost for nearly 3 decades, it also points out the disastrous shift from subsidies for investment and low rents to high rents and benefits. As several people pointed out at the launch, over the next three years we will spend over £90 billion on housing benefit but only £4.5 billion on investment subsidy. That can’t be right and as a society we should be achieving far more with the money.
Housing Voice has been a good exercise that took a lot of evidence from all round the country and from people living in all tenures. Lord Whitty has produced a challenging report which seems to have met the original objective of pushing housing further up the political agenda. It deserves to be debated widely and to become Exhibit A in the case for many more new homes.