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The Housing White Paper for England - a vision for solving the housing crisis?

05 April 2017 Author: Terrie Alafat CBE

House Building

It’s fair to say that expectations of the UK Government’s long-anticipated Housing White Paper for England were high. This was the first time in years that a strategic paper on housing policy was published, so it’s no surprise that some of the reaction was lukewarm.

But though it perhaps wasn’t as bold as it could have been in places, there’s no doubt it represents a significant change in direction which sets out a vision for solving the housing crisis.

It very clearly moves away from an almost exclusive focus on home ownership and places new emphasis on increasing levels of multi-tenure house building over the long-term. We can all agree this is a shift that is both welcome and overdue.

We were particularly pleased to see the role of local authorities recognised – both in terms of their key role in enabling others to build homes and their own role as house builders.

The barriers which currently prevent councils from building are well-known. Borrowing caps and recent changes in rent policy greatly undermine their ability to borrow and invest. Meanwhile, rules which mean councils receive only a proportion of right to buy receipts has also prevented them from reinvesting.

We’re delighted then to see a willingness to change this, both in the White Paper and in the subsequent words and actions of the housing minister and DCLG officials.

In fact we recently were part of a meeting of organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) and local authorities at a meeting with DCLG to look at how bespoke deals for local authorities could maximise their potential to build new homes.

The minister has also since suggested right to buy receipts could be reviewed and promised that he will try to mitigate the negative effects of high value asset sales.

Taken together these measures show a real intent on the part of the government to bring councils firmly back into the fold – something we have consistently called for.

Meanwhile the changes to the Government’s policy on starter homes, making it just one part of a much more balanced approach to tenure, is also a significant positive step in the right direction.

However, some long-term questions remain.  

Though there is a new emphasis on build to rent, we still don’t really have any concrete commitments on affordability.

The balance, or rather imbalance, of housing investment the Government has earmarked until 2020 highlights the extent to which there is still a significant focus on supporting the private market. In fact our recent analysis showed that just £8 billion of the £51 billion earmarked for housing over that period will directly fund affordable housing.

It’s difficult to imagine how we can really make a mark in building the genuinely affordable housing we so desperately need as long as this remains the case.

Rising levels of homelessness highlight the stark need for homes for the people who need them the most. So its worrying that our projections suggest 250,000 of the cheapest rented homes could be lost between 2012 and 2020.

Meanwhile a number of welfare policies continue to undermine the Government’s commitment to create a country which works for everyone.

The lower benefit cap, which our research revealed could put 116,000 families at risk of homelessness, is a policy which puts genuinely affordable housing out of reach for many families. We are calling for this policy to be reversed.

And the local housing allowance cap leaves a damaging uncertainty about the viability of supported housing which risks undermining Philip Hammond’s recent commitment on social care.

What we need now is for the Government to maintain its focus on what must be a long-term commitment to solve our housing crisis and not let it fall by the wayside or be overshadowed by Brexit.

Our research on the growing gap between the local housing allowance and private rents highlights the extent to which this is also a significant cause for concern. Most recently we revealed that the help with housing costs that young people receive to rent privately and the rents in their area is putting housing out of reach for young people in many areas.

We also think more could be done to help people living in the private rented sector and we’re calling for new minimum standards to be introduced as well as tax incentives for landlords who sign up to accreditation schemes.

I’ll end on a positive note - that in Gavin Barwell we do seem to have a housing minister that is genuinely passionate about housing and is listening.

We were delighted to co-host one of Mr Barwell’s Housing White Paper events with HouseMark recently and everyone who attended was impressed by his knowledge, approach and openness. This offers very real hope for the future.

What we need now is for the Government to maintain its focus on what must be a long-term commitment to solve our housing crisis and not let it fall by the wayside or be overshadowed by Brexit.

Terrie Alafat CBE is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing.

Terrie will be speaking at the RTPI Planning Convention on 21st June 2017.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Terrie Alafat CBE

Terrie Alafat CBE

Terrie Alafat CBE is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing.