“A start, not an end”: the chief executive of Shelter on the government’s new council housing policy

A generic picture of some houses. Image: Getty.

Long after we’ve all forgotten about the stunt, the lozenge and the stage malfunction, let’s hope we remember Theresa May’s conference speech for setting a new course on the need for new social homes.

And quite right too. With the tragedy of Grenfell still all too fresh in our minds, and with millions of private renters struggling to keep their heads above water each month, this country is in desperate need of more good quality homes that people on low wages can afford.

We do have concerns that the meat beneath the speech doesn’t live up to its billing. But this commitment to build a new generation of council homes marks a big shift.

Comparing last week’s announcement to where the government was just two years ago is like night to day. Back then, funding for new social rent homes wasn’t on their radar at all, and plans to force councils to sell many remaining homes were being pushed through parliament.

Today, those policies are little more than bad memories. Instead, we have the promise of new powers and new money for councils to build new homes at social rents.

This may be more significant than just unpicking a few years’ harmful policy, though. Opposition parties have long talked a good game about council house building, but doing so in government is something that none have done seriously for more than 40 years. No Prime Minister has made it the lead announcement of a conference speech for even longer – since before party conference speeches were party conference speeches at all.


But speeches alone don’t build homes. To really make a difference to ordinary families, what we need is the detail that get foundations dug and cement poured. To do this at the scale needed, the government needs to do three things.

First, we need to see a commitment to rent levels that are low enough to be genuinely affordable to low-earning families. Theresa May has committed that the homes will be social rent “where the need is greatest”, but housing costs are unaffordable for people on low wages across much of the country. A commitment to build new low rent homes across the country is essential.

Second, we need many, many more social homes. The funding announced today is welcome but the reality is that with over 1.2m households on waiting lists already, this is only a fraction of the long-term investment required. It will need to be the start, rather than the end.

And third, we need to see councils being given new powers to get land into the system much more cheaply, so they can deliver better quality homes.

We should genuinely celebrate the possibility of a consensus on the new need for social rented homes. What’s needed now are the policy changes to justify its top billing.

Polly Neate is the chief executive of housing charity Shelter. This piece originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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