To have or have not: taking responsibility for tomorrow’s affordable homes today launched this week is a call to arms for all those who want to see housing crisis addressed and the jobs dividend this will lead to realised.
The report, which is of an inquiry into the affordable homes crisis by Housing Voice and chaired by Lord Whitty, describes a situation in which many households and families work hard, but still find it difficult to find somewhere to live.
Underpinning the report are four important propositions and observations that should guide a new approach to housing.
First, the government has to take a broad responsibility for ensuring that there are enough homes being built to meet demand – and that a significant number of these should be affordable to people on low to middle incomes.
This has been accepted in previous periods of history, but has not been the case for a number of years.
We have clearly been living through an era in which governments have worked on the assumption that the market should provide for all but the most needy. But when you look at how supply has failed to keep up with demand over more recent years, and the way in which costs have increased relative to incomes, you can see clearly that this assumption does not hold true. The report suggests that institutional investment could help to provide some of the finance for the homes we need, but it also points out that this is not a silver bullet. Public investment and new measures such as the use of QE to purchase housing bonds are crucial too.
The call for greater interventions is as true today as it was before last week’s announcements about government guarantees of £10 billion on investment by developers and housing associations.
Whilst almost any move in this area is welcome, there is a real danger that this too oriented to supply, at a time when we need more direct injection of demand.
Second is the suggestion that local government should be in the driving seat. Local authorities – democratically accountable to their communities – are well placed to perform a far greater role in ensuring housing is provided; they already have planning powers, and undertake some assessments of housing demand, while the recent localism act gave them responsibility for drawing up tenancy strategies and a general power of competency.
Enhancing these powers, placing a duty on them to ensure that affordable homes are provided, and putting in place a financial framework under which they can borrow more now against future rental streams, could make them key delivery agents.
Third is the importance that the report attaches to the role that public sector land can play. Last week’s government announcement was significant for saying that developers could appeal to have section 106 requirements waived. This of course comes on the back of the report for the government by Sir Adrian Montague suggesting that local authorities should not push too hard for section 106 on public sector land when it is to be used for private rented sector developments.
There is a real danger that the government are creating a developers’ charter, rather than trying to put in place policy that is in the public interest. At the very least these developments reveal a failure to engage strategically with the underlying issue of affordability
An approach that prioritises different types of affordable housing, including social rented, intermediate and co-operative homes, when building on public sector land, is very useful, especially when spending is tight.
Finally, there is what the report says about the way in which working class households experience the housing market at the current time and why this needs to change: The ever-longer journey to work times; the huge numbers with grown up children living at home; and the way in which labour market flexibility works against people’s ability to access mortgages or enter into other longer term financial commitments.
These are all indicators of a system that is breaking down and that UNISON – through both more affordable housing and better pay – is fighting to improve. This report includes a serious package of recommendations, but they are meaningless if we do not see them implemented.
Housing Voice is an alliance of organisations committed to pushing affordable housing up the political agenda. UNISON is a founding member. The inquiry into affordable housing was supported by Citizens Advice, Child Poverty Action Group, National Housing Federation, TUC, NUS and Co-ops CDS.
Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of UNISON