What an interesting time to be working in the social housing sector. As I write this, many of us have just returned from the Charted Institute of Housing Conference in Manchester, which over 10,000 housing professionals attended. I was personally delighted to hear Terrie Alafat, Chief Executive of the CIH, lay down the challenge to build genuinely affordable (by inference – social rented) homes in her opening address. Interestingly, she also called for a reclaiming of social housing and redefining the role of social housing, which in simple terms means “go back to what you were set up to do”.
We who work in the social housing sector often piously believe the housing problems in England start and end with the Private Rented Sector (PRS). Whilst there is no doubt that the lack of regulation on rents and standards in the PRS sector has led to misery for so many, it’s not the only problem in town. The rise in PRS is, in part, due to the complicity of the Social Housing Sector. When we look at the raw data the evidence is very clear: 22% of the 50 biggest housing associations built no social rented homes at all last year. From this we can start to see that we are as much part of the problem in creating an unstable, unequitable, unsafe housing market.
While this problem is not confined to England, other areas of the UK have much more progressive housing policies, notably Scotland, which has increased its supply of socially rented homes considerably in the last few years and is committed to doing so in the coming years.
As a housing charity Spring has the polices that make us a housing association on one side and on the other a lot of knowledge on the private rented sector, primarily though our procurement activity – as over 90% of our stock is leased from the PRS.
Whilst the PRS is seen as an untamed beast by many, we at Spring have long believed that the social housing sector is also becoming increasingly difficult to navigate for the average person as there are so many different “affordable” products.
In Birmingham, we have affordable housing which is generally 80% of market rents, the Birmingham Municipal Trust (Birmingham City Council’s housing vehicle) sets its rents at 70% of market rents. We have social rents, and the Local Housing Allowance generally applied to those in private rented properties. There are other variations as well that I won’t dwell on here. Local politicians often stand there at the obligatory opening ceremony for the latest affordable housing scheme, unaware that this new scheme is 80% or more of market rents and unaffordable for the people that need it the most. If politicians, local officials, and planners find it hard to navigate the sector, then how does the average person?
Whilst I’ve been a bit soap boxy above and written negatively about all the problems, there is much to be hopeful for. A good starting point would be for further power to be devolved when it comes to housing and community policies which builds on some of the work the Mayors have been doing in the West Midlands, Manchester and London.
For 3 years, Spring has advocated what is in effect a 5-point plan. When carrying out our customer surveys, a lot of the feedback is about the wider housing picture, particularly from those that access our homeless services. The plan detailed below has been developed from 3 years’ worth of knowledge and consultation across our own customer base alongside data readily available through the sector.
When we first started talking about some of the ideas set out below, I think at best we would have been described as mavericks, but as government welfare policies have matured (such as the Right to Buy, the death of social rent for a short time under Cameron and Osborne regime, and the introduction of Universal Credit which has contributed to the rise of destitution levels to the highest since the 1950s) there has been a momentous shift in thinking. We now look much wider for solutions to the issues due to the sheer scale of the housing problems we are facing at a local level.
1. A new universal social rent system
We acknowledge that the current grants available for building social rented homes discourage large swathes of housing associations from building (only 12.6% of all affordable homes built were socially rent from 2017/18), but also recognise that charging 80% of market rent is too far the other way. We believe that a middle way between the two would be a fair and equitable way to align all new builds so there is in effect one social housing product, with reginal variances in rents.
The Mayor and council leaders have a window of opportunity to deliver this as we have a government in listening mode (thank you snap election result). That Sir Oliver Letwin, in his interim report on all things housing, has identified that demand for social rented homes is “virtually unlimited” and that improving the mix of tenures and social housing will be the central plank to government policy, is very encouraging indeed. The regulator Homes England is open to dialogue on grant levels (and, in truth, always has been) and an exciting initiative such as this that could really put the West Midlands at the forefront of innovative, progressive housing policy. Getting rid of the nebulous term “affordable housing” would also be a good start! On the other side we know that housing associations and local authorities are very willing to do more collectively and with a bit of political will and a development plan a lot could be achieved.
2. A clearly defined housing plan
In Birmingham, our housing plan was developed a few years ago and the market has changed considerably since then. There has been a huge rise in the PRS market, HS2 is on its way, a new hospital on our border has inevitably seen huge spikes in rents. The plan is to develop 30% of all new homes for under market value, however we think we need greater definition on this: of that 30% how many need to be social rent, how many affordable, etc, etc. Point 1 above would solve this, but in the interim, something needs to be done.
In Birmingham in 2016/17, of the 4,768 new homes approved by the Planning Committee only 428 were affordable housing. That’s just under 9%, and miles off where we need to be. We have also seen developers slip out of their affordable commitments by evidencing to planners that their profit isn’t big enough! We lost 1003 affordable homes in 2015/16 alone for this reason.
3. A private rented leasing scheme in temporary accommodation
There are huge additional pressures placed on local authorities by the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act. Although an overwhelmingly positive and progressive piece of legislation, it’s very much central government handing over a huge burden to our local authority partners with no additional infrastructure (outside of staffing).
Many local authorities have now changed their policies in being able to discharge into the PRS, but why not go a step further as use the PRS as a preventative model? By actively procuring property for families, the rent charges would be considerably less than putting people in very expensive (and sometimes dangerous) bed and breakfasts/hotels. We could look at where the properties were procured which could take account of school places, primary and secondary care availability, and police engagement from a neighbourhood perspective. We know this can work, as we do it on a much smaller scale on the Syrian Resettlement Scheme in 6 different regions, so it’s already in operation and lots of lessons have been learnt around procurement and intelligence on the PRS sector.
In Birmingham, we have a huge issue with over 2000 households in temporary accommodation and hundreds now placed out of city, the national picture is close to 80,000. The damage to the emotional wellbeing of these families as they are effectively displaced is extensive, with all the evidence suggesting this will affect the children’s health, educational, and life chances. There has been some incredible work done by our colleagues in the local authorities we work with but they need resources and options, the current solutions are too expensive in monetary and human cost.
4. Regulation of rents and universal right to a home
Despite the best efforts of our government over the past 8 years, we still have universal healthcare and education and most people, whatever their political persuasion, agree that this is a good thing. In a developed democracy with significant resources it’s a very basic need that is being catered for, so why is housing any different?
We are in complete agreement with our colleagues at Crisis that decent, safe housing should be a basic human right, not just for those that have the financial resources to secure it. Having everybody in safe homes is fundamentally the right thing for society to do.
This could be seen as a radical and, on face value, very expensive decision. In the short term, yes, it would be a burden on the public purse, but doing nothing but managing crises is not an effective way to tackle a fundamental problem. The cost to the NHS, social care, education, social justice, and temporary housing would also see huge savings.
There are 112,973 “unfit” private-rented homes in the West Midlands, which equates to 26% of all the private-rented housing stock (figures taken from the English Housing Survey). We currently live in the shadow of Grenfell and, like many seismic events in the past, sometimes it takes something beyond our comprehension to bring about much needed policy changes that have universal approval. Not many could argue against the need for fundamental change, albeit 123 of our MPs are landlords, that’s one fifth https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/almost-one-in-five-mps-are-landlords. This is a factor in the shutdown of the Human Habitation Bill a few years ago before, thankfully, it was revived and supported by government earlier this year.
We also think private rents should be capped. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have long advocated that housing costs should be one third a household’s expenditure. In most cases in the PRS it is so far north of that, it is completely unaffordable. The huge irony that most renters are paying more for their home than people that are paying their mortgage off is lost on those who could effect change. If we can have a local housing allowance then why not a rent cap at the other end, which would at least put some controls on the Pandora’s Box of the rental market in the UK.
5. Window coverings and carpets for people that have tenancies under the age of 35
Nobody likes to demonise the young quite as much as the UK, but even the most hardened of us in middle age couldn’t argue that it has never been more difficult for young people in the housing market than it Is today. If social landlords provided carpets and curtains as a minimum for those young people having tenancies for the first time, then it would enable them to be able to create a home. In our experience there is help to get furniture and appliances, but so often we see people without the means to afford proper floor coverings, using bedsheets on windows, or unable to cover the windows and have any privacy at all. How can you come home from (often very low paid) work and call a bare concrete shell your home?
This is simply an affordability issue, in housing association terms it’s a relatively small gesture but one that would make clear gains in tenancy sustainment almost overnight. In general terms, you wouldn’t dream of renting a private rented property without this basic provision, but somehow social housing is different despite the fact that it is dealing with the most disadvantaged. Housing association asset management and maintenance teams are often barriers in this area, quoting health and safety legislation and fire regulations, and voicing concerns about liability and having to repair items that are housing association property. The simplest solution is to put some decent stuff in and gift it to the tenants! Little gestures go a long way in helping people create a home, let’s do more for our young people we have burdened them enough already.
The list above is far from exhaustive and, from discussing them down the years, I know that many people will disagree with them (often vehemently). But the status-quo can’t be allowed to prevail this time, the stakes are too high. All government eyes are focused on the dogma of Brexit and the crisis will deepen unless we lobby and ultimately support our government to make the changes required. Some of our plans are radical, some pragmatic but we must do more as a sector to assist those that need it most. Wasn’t that why we were all set up in the first place?
Author: Dominic Bradley