Here’s how we get pension providers to help fix the housing crisis

Some foundations. Image: Getty.

At this year’s Conservative party conference, the new housing secretary did not disguise his priorities. “We are on the side of hard-working people who want the sense of security that comes with home ownership,” said Robert Jenrick as he set out plans to give housing association tenants the right to purchase a share in the equity of their property. 

But what about those of us who expect to rent for the foreseeable future? As both a renter and CEO of a housing association I recognise both the benefits and the risks associated with this type of tenure.  

For many people, renting is a positive lifestyle choice offering greater flexibility, lower costs and less stress than home ownership. For many others, renting is the only option currently available to them and the outlook can be bleak. Too many people get a poor level of service from their landlord. Renters are too often stuck with precarious tenancies and face the prospect of having to pay considerable costs when they are forced to move out.

And yet, more and more people of all ages are renting in towns and cities across the UK. With renting increasingly becoming the new normal, more has to be done to make it an attractive offer with positive benefits, rather than a last ditch resort that people have to put up with while hoping not to get ripped off or exploited. 

To get real change and better housing options for renters, policy-makers need to think outside of the box and explore all avenues to deliver the quality affordable homes we need. In many sectors of the UK economy, politicians have been long been keen to encourage innovation and new ways of thinking. Housing should not be an exception, and yet radical policy solutions in the sector have often failed to get traction or have been put on the backburner.

Housing associations could play a far greater role in delivering affordable housing, but to make it happen we also need to be pro-active and embrace new ways of thinking. That’s why for some time I have been looking into setting up a new government-backed fund, through which pension schemes would be able to invest directly in affordable housing construction. 

Of course, such a fund would require government cash at the outset. Research done for us by a former government economist has found a £2bn seed loan would kick-start affordable development on a mass scale. The fund could be operational within two years and capable of financing the delivery of 30,000 affordable homes each year.

It would be run by the housing association sector and it would encourage the use of modern methods of construction in order to quickly mass produce new homes – imagine affordable homes being built at scale and speed, churned out by factories in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. 

Pension providers have told me they can see potential in the model. They recognise that affordable housing could provide pension schemes with a reliable, socially responsible, long-term investment option. 

Having considered this concept for some time, my sense is that policymakers are also becoming increasingly interested. Earlier this year, the Labour party green paper Housing for the Many made it clear that the policy is under consideration and I have had constructive discussions with politicians from other parties too. 

With a general election around the corner, I hope to hear more in the weeks and months to come. As things stand, we are nowhere near tackling the UK-wide shortfall and we clearly cannot we rely on the big developers who currently dominate the market. Perhaps the biggest scandal in housing today is the prominent position being taken up by volume builders who lack both the capacity and motivation to increase the number of affordable homes they deliver.

As a housing association boss, it might not come as a huge surprise to learn that I firmly believe housing associations are best placed to deliver the affordable that many renters are crying out for. We build quality, affordable rental and purchase homes and we help to shape the communities around them. Tenants are at the absolute heart of our vision.  

However it is not enough to cross our fingers and hope that politicians put their faith in us. Instead we have to be bold and seize the initiative. With detailed proposals for a radical new pensions-backed affordable housing fund, I have done exactly that. Politicians should do the same.

Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.


Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.