Pursuing Quantity and Quality: The Urgency of Social Housing Reform

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Pursuing Quantity and Quality: The Urgency of Social Housing Reform

While the Queen’s Speech addressed a number of pressing needs in housing (including building safety, planning, and renters’ reform), a commitment to enshrining the Social Housing White Paper into law was conspicuously absent. However, adopting the reforms proposed in the paper would still fail to address the needs of a country that is currently suffering from an acute shortage of homes. A proactive approach to social housing policy that prioritises not only quantity, but quality, is the only solution.

The reforms to housing promised by the Queen in her speech on May 11th were, in many ways, a step in the right direction. The neglect of social housing reform and her announcement of the government’s commitment to scrapping Section 106 (which enabled the creation of 49% of all affordable homes in 2018/19) was concerning. However, the commitments made to helping “more people to own their own home, while enhancing the rights of those who rent” and creating a Building Safety Regulator and New Homes Ombudsman are encouraging signs that the central government is putting “housing high up the political agenda. ” It is important, however, that if housing is to become a priority, reforms are not reactive, but proactive.

Many, including Grenfell United, have called on the government to enshrine the Social Housing White Paper into law which would, amongst other things, “hold landlords to account through robust independent inspections and a proactive complaints system for residents to get their complaints heard. ” While the benefits of instituting these sorts of reforms are obvious, they do not call for significant changes to central goverment's approach to social housing nor do they anticipate the housing needs of a growing population. Instead they simply advocate for a more robust approach to the government’s current strategy - focusing on the numbers of houses built. This misses out on the opportunity to advocate for the utilisation of housing reform as a key measure in the UK's levelling up agenda.

Misplaced Priorities

Beyond the concerning decisions to remove Section 106 and ignore the recommendations of the Social Housing White Paper, the commitments made by the Queen to housing reform lack foresight. A strong emphasis on the creation of new homes by the numbers, coupled with vague promises to “explore the merits of a landlord register” and publish a white paper detailing its reforms “in due course,” would seem to indicate that the quality of homes being built is of considerably less concern than the quantity. The fact that according to Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, there have been no updates “on who will pay for all immediate building safety works, such as replacing cladding, in social housing,” all but confirms it.

The housing crisis is often thought of in terms of a lack of homes but while numbers are a key issue, they are not the entirety of the problem. No matter the numbers, housing that is not close to where people work, that fails to adequately accommodate its tenants, that is not affordable, will not solve the crisis. An approach that is tenant-centred and focuses on quality homes can transform the creation of new homes into a platform for local communities and economies to flourish.

Unlocking New Potential

The UK is at an important crossroads. Roughly 17 per cent of the English population (or 3.9 million households) live in what could be described as ‘social housing’ (meaning a home that is either provided by a housing association, council, or not-for-profit or a home rented by a commercial company at ‘below market rent’). That number is likely to continue to grow as affordable housing for low-income renters becomes increasingly rare – the National Housing Federation has stated it will be necessary to build 145,000 new social homes every year for the next ten years.

As commitments are beginning to be made by central government to address the issues with housing after a decade of neglect, there is an opportunity to set specific standards and adopt new approaches that ensure social housing can provide the maximum benefit. Especially to a country that is attempting to emerge as a leader in the post-COVID-19 world. While social housing is typically thought of as a safety net that provides long-term help for those who cannot afford to rent at market prices, there is an opportunity to impact the market positively by catering new social housing to a broader range of incomes (which could both help young people save to afford private homes in the future while forcing the private market to become more competitive). Should this sort of strategy be coupled with initiatives that stress not only the affordability, but the desirability and convenience of new social housing, the benefits to local communities can be compounded by an increase in GVA and the presence of the social housing provider as a community anchor.

A Clear and Obvious Need

Social housing already makes sense. Reducing the need for benefits, while tackling inequalities through helping to reduce child poverty and homelessness, are already tangible benefits of social housing that extend not only to those who occupy the units, but the tax payers who pay for them (and that’s before looking at the savings in things like healthcare, justice, social security). While it can sometimes be difficult to judge the value of preventative spending, Shelter have estimated that a program that would aim to see 3.1 million homes built in the next two decades could provide a return on investment within 40 years – with a yearly cost of £10.7bn that would fall to £3.8bn when savings and increased revenues are taken into account.

Since 2010, investment in housing associations has declined by as much as 50 per cent according to the National Housing Federation. Given that social housing can be productivity-enhancing (according to Maclennan, et al, 2019) and function to promote inclusive economic growth while assuaging the impact of market failures, it would seem that the UK would be remiss to exclude social housing reform from its plans to ‘level up. ’

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