What can we learn from the government’s track record on housing?

Housing is on the government’s radar, says Kate Henderson, but more work is needed to argue the sector’s position on planning, Section 106, and the impacts of policy decisions

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Assessing Boris Johnson’s first year in housing policy terms (Picture: Getty)
Assessing Boris Johnson’s first year in housing policy terms (Picture: Getty)
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What can we learn from the government’s track record on housing? @KateNHF looks at the first 14 months of Boris Johnson from a housing policy perspective #UKHousing

“We share the government’s ambition to build more homes more quickly, and the planning system needs to be efficient. But it also shapes the kinds of places where we will live for decades,” says @KateNHF #UKHousing

When the government took office more than a year ago, nobody knew much about its views on housing. Now, after a year in office and a spate of recent announcements, what conclusions can we draw?

Clearly, the housing crisis is firmly on the government’s radar. And rightly so – polling we carried out last year showed that housing was one of the most important local issues for the people whose votes delivered a Conservative majority at the election.

And this seems to be resonating, despite all the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In his June ‘Build, build, build’ speech, the prime minister described the failure to build enough homes as one of the country’s “great unresolved challenges of the last three decades”.

“We share the government’s ambition to build more homes more quickly, and the planning system needs to be efficient. But it also shapes the kinds of places where we will live for decades”

Last week, the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) demonstrated that social housing is clearly part of the government’s thinking. Unlike previous settlements, social and affordable rents sit on an equal footing with support for homeownership. By shifting back towards social rent, which the sector has been calling for, the government has shown that it does see a role for social housing.


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Of course, there are also challenges with this AHP, not least the proposed new model for shared ownership, which may make it harder for the sector to build the homes the country desperately needs. We are concerned that instead of creating confidence and helping the economy bounce back from coronavirus, this could have the opposite effect. Indeed, there is a risk that these changes could even threaten the viability of shared ownership as a tenure. Now, we are working hard to understand exactly what the proposals will mean for the sector and ensure its views are heard.

“We urgently need more action from the government to ensure that the regulatory system is fit for purpose and that every building in the country is safe”

Alongside this, the government has also promised “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War”. We share the government’s ambition to build more homes more quickly and the planning system needs to be efficient. But it also shapes the kinds of places where we will live for decades. So, for the National Housing Federation and our members, these reforms will be a success if they deliver more social rented homes in communities that are inclusive, sustainable and beautiful.

However, there are several aspects we are concerned about, such as the government’s proposal to replace Section 106 agreements with a national levy system. While Section 106 agreements aren’t perfect, the stakes are very high here: they delivered about 28,000 affordable homes last year (around half the total).

It’s therefore positive that the government has stated that it wants the new levy to create “at least as much affordable housing across the country as the current system”. But we also can’t forget the importance of building these homes in mixed, inclusive communities.

We are working closely with the government to shape the detail of these proposals and ensure that our members’ perspectives are heard. As well as a submission to the government’s consultation on the Planning White Paper, which closes at the end of October, we are also convening roundtables with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government officials and the sector. We have already raised these issues with key officials, including those in Number 10.

We’re also working to shape the government’s plans in the longer term. Our ‘Homes at the Heart’ campaign has brought together the whole social housing sector with others, from banks to trade unions, to make the case for investment in social housing.

In doing so, we have demonstrated to government the wide-ranging support for this argument. The campaign has reached policymakers and the public through direct engagement and media coverage and has been backed publicly by senior politicians and even members of the cabinet.

Meanwhile, our #HomesAtTheHeart messages have reached 5.6 million people on social media. Our submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review will also make the case for why the sector needs to play a central role in the country’s recovery from coronavirus.

Of course, the government has also had to work with the housing sector to support us in responding to the coronavirus pandemic and working through the enormous building safety challenges we’re facing. During the early days of the pandemic, the government’s response was very positive, with ministers responding quickly to our concerns about PPE and definitions of key workers. As for building safety, in some areas we have seen progress, such as housing associations’ ability to reclaim leaseholders’ costs on some remediation work. But we urgently need more action from the government to ensure that the regulatory system is fit for purpose and that every building in the country is safe.

“While the government has ambitions on homeownership, the reality is we are likely to see a fall in private sector housebuilding”

As the collective voice of housing associations in England, we are scrutinising announcements carefully, and publicly challenging decisions when necessary – as we have done recently both on Newsnight and in The Telegraph over cladding issues.

So what, then, have we learned in the 14 months since the government took office? We know, first and foremost, that housing is one of its priorities. We also know that social housing has a part to play, but homeownership continues to reign supreme.

Finally, while there have been some welcome announcements on funding for social housing, planning reform is the preferred approach to getting the country building.

It’s clear that there could be challenges over the next few years, especially in the face of a deep economic recession caused by the coronavirus crisis. While the government has ambitions on homeownership, the reality is we are likely to see a fall in private sector housebuilding. This makes the case for counter-cyclical investment in social housing even more powerful.

Now, it’s up to the government to seize the opportunity to shore up the construction sector, sustaining thousands of jobs and the delivery of much-needed social homes.

Kate Henderson, chief executive, National Housing Federation

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