A cross-party commission has recommended that the UK government should build 3.1 million council homes over the next 20 years.
In a report highlighting the extent of the housing crisis — from the 277,000 people now homeless to the one in five private renters cutting back on food to pay the rent — the Shelter Commission on the Future of Social Housing warned that, with no change, a generation of young families would be “trapped renting privately for their whole lives”.
Drawing on historical commitments — including the Conservatives’ 1951 pledge to build 300,000 houses a year — it calls for a return to a “more ambitious understanding of social housing’s purpose”.
“A fundamental shift is needed in how we think about social housing,” it says. “In the post-war period, politicians of both parties — from Macmillan to Bevan — saw public house-building as an investment. They espoused the idea that it should help meet people’s aspirations, as well as their needs. From this height, new social housing has slowed to a trickle of just 6,000 a year.”
The 3.1 million homes envisaged would not just cater for those in greatest need but also for “young families trying to get on and save for their future”, and older private renters.
The Government has pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year, and has instigated reforms which include lifting the cap on local-authority borrowing. But the Commission argues that building more council houses is “the only credible hope that government has of reaching its target”.
Over the past five years, an average of 166,000 homes have been built each year. There are currently 1.2 million households on the waiting list for social housing, including 250,639 who live in unsanitary or overcrowded conditions, and 144,196 who are homeless. The average share of income that young families spend on housing has trebled over the past 50 years. It is estimated that 41 per cent of private renters spend 41 per cent of their household income on rent.
“The speculative model of development that our market house-building system is based on is structurally incapable of building the quantity or type of homes that would bring down prices,” the Commission says — echoing a diagnosis given by the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker.
The Commission has called for a cross-party consensus. In October, the Prime Minister acknowledged that social housing had been “pushed to the edge of the political debate”, and announced an extra £2 billion of funding for housing associations.
In November the centre-right think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice said that the slump in council housing over recent decades had had “devastating consequences” for both the taxpayer and low earners. Although it considered mass council housing building “highly unlikely”, it recommended that the Government “definitively model the financial implications of shifting demand-side subsidy through housing benefits to supply-side investment in truly affordable housing over the longer term”.
Calculations by Capital Economics, commissioned by Shelter, suggest that the cost of the 3.1 million council houses would be between £10.7 billion and £5.4 billion per year, depending on the wider economic benefits of investment and welfare savings. The programme would “pay back in full over 39 years”. The Government currently spends £21 billion annually on housing benefit and spending on temporary accommodation has risen to nearly £1 billion.
The right-wing think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies has different prescriptions, which include simplifying the planning system and speeding up the disposal of public land. It has also called for an “ownership revolution”, including incentives for landlords to sell.
The Commission also explores the stigma surrounding social housing, which was noted by Mrs May. A Britain Thinks survey found that two out of three private renter respondents felt that people would perceive them in a more negative light if they lived in social housing.
This stigma is “misplaced”, the Commission says. “Social housing is not damaging to people, nor does it cause deprivation. Rather than being a barrier to mobility and aspiration, social renters found that it could be a platform for getting on in life.” It is also, it argues, “one of the key tools that we have to avoid the social segregation seen in different parts of the world”.
The Commission, established a year ago in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, is chaired by the Minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church, the Revd Dr Mike Long. Other members include the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Rob Gershon, a council house tenant and activist.
“The time for the government to act is now,” the report says. “In the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire and ten years on from the financial crash, with the nation divided by a worsening housing crisis affecting more and more people, the appetite for change has never been greater.”
Sophie Cowan, an ordination candidate at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford who grew up on a council estate, worked in social housing, and is focusing on estates ministry in her MTH studies, said that social housing needed “renewed vision, not simply bigger building projects”.
“The idea that the longer you spend on the waiting list the more likely you are to be provided with accommodation simply does not match the legislative requirement to house those considered to be most in need,” she said. “If this is how social-housing is actually functioning, it is worth asking whether or not its purpose has changed. For example, the Right to Buy at highly discounted prices — amounts which do not equate to the cost of building new homes — though a worthy aim, may no longer be viable.”
As buying property became more difficult, she suggested, perhaps “long-term renting ought to be thought of as the ‘norm’, rather than a ‘trap’ for those who’s landlord is the Local Authority.” Another part of the solution could be preventing landlords’ from obtaining information about potential tenants’ income, to tackle the refusal of those on housing benefit.
“Building more houses may address the needs of some in emergency situations, but it is unlikely to combat issues such as homelessness for single men particularly, who are not considered a priority in law,” she said.
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, welcomed the report.
“The disaster at Grenfell Tower showed how social housing has often been neglected in the past and that we badly need more and better quality social housing,” he said. “The social-housing sector also needs tighter regulation to ensure safety standards are kept high to prevent tragedies like Grenfell happening again.”
He called, too, for “a different attitude to it . . . a new culture that values social housing as an important and valid part of our housing stock in this country. . .
“We also need action to use current housing stock better. There are too many empty properties around the country.”