Friday, 20 January 2017

New supply not enough to solve housing crisis

I spent quite a bit of the recent holiday season travelling, and with eight flights in 11 days it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s an airport metaphor that has come to mind as I write this article.

Housing associations seemed to have been hanging around in the departure lounge for much of the last parliament – our flight never being called – while homeowners and developers took the fast-track queue to their gates.

But towards the end of last year, we were called up – given our boarding passes, if you like. The encouraging words of the new government turned into some extra money in the Autumn Statement, and while we may not yet be on the plane, we’re clearly on the bus and heading out across the tarmac. Our destination: solving the housing crisis. A genuinely positive and exciting opportunity.

“We need a housing system that works for everyone.”

Nevertheless, I have an apprehension. I’m not sure yet that we all agree on what a solution looks like. There’s a lot of talk about building new homes and of course that has to happen. Government has committed funds and we must now respond with delivery.

Here in Manchester, the long-awaited city region Spatial Framework was finally published before Christmas, and it has already become a political lightning-conductor for the elected mayoral candidates as well as a focus of public protest and intense debate. We’ve had our say, and the National Housing Federation is also looking to lobby those standing for mayor to ensure that whoever is elected truly is a mayor for housing.

The argument that we need to double the output of new homes is won. The conversations now are about where we put them, what type of stock they are, and what infrastructure, services and amenities we need to surround them to ensure we create sustainable, safe and healthy communities.

At Trafford Housing Trust, with our joint venture with L&Q and the refinancing we have just completed, the rate at which we will build those new homes will increase from around 200 a year to 2,000 over the next four years. Many other housing associations are doing the same: stretching balance sheets, leveraging grant and using profits from market-facing homes to create more affordable homes without subsidy.

So we are on the way to increasing supply – and we would be even further if the forthcoming White Paper proposed some kind of “use it or lose it” on landholders and speculators. But for me, while more homes are a necessary part of the solution, we should not be persuaded by the development lobby that, on its own, this is sufficient. Other things must also be addressed.

First, we need a housing system that works for everyone, not just for aspirant families with steady incomes. Look hard enough, and from rough sleepers to sofa surfers, from families in bed and breakfasts to single people discharged from prison, from those with mental health needs to those leaving care, we see around us a damaged system that harms the most vulnerable.

Second, we need a housing system that is joined properly to the health and social care system. Only then will delayed transfers of care from overfull hospitals become a thing of the past. That is assuming the imposition of the Local Housing Allowance cap – the unintended consequences of which Clare Tickell spelled out so well – does not derail that joining up before it can get going.

And these things can only rightly be determined locally. So the third part of solving the crisis is more devolution, more freedom and more flexibility for local areas to determine their own future – and in areas that have been off limits up until now.

How different things would be if housing providers up and down the country could show to the government that freedom to set our own rents will lead to a reduced benefit bill for government and how freedom to select our own tenants, and the tenancy products they receive, will extend affordable housing solutions to those left behind in the current system, rather than erode local authorities’ ability to meet their statutory duty for homeless families.

So as we get on our plane and head off to solve the crisis, let’s remember that increasing supply – the first flight – is just one stop on our travels.

The onward flights will be into unknown territories, where government interests – and hence their financial support – do not exist and where the terrain may be difficult or even hostile. But solving the crisis requires us to go there and not sit comfortably in the land of new supply.

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