The long-anticipated housing white paper promises to fix a housing market that, by the government’s own admission, is profoundly broken. It marks a shift away from some long cherished ideological pillars: that the basis of prosperity and progress lies in owning one’s own home. This has been the position advanced by both Conservative and Labour governments for more than half a century.
But while raising the possibility that home ownership does not have to be the be-all and end-all of housing policy, this white paper risks widening further the gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots in society.
As the Joseph Rowntree’s housing market task force concluded over five years ago, the housing market is the main engine of inequality in British society. To move away from a property-owning democracy demands making sure that the alternative – renting – is affordable, safe, offers the same sense of security for families, and provides the same access to genuinely liveable places, as ownership. The white paper falls well short of the mark in achieving tenure parity in these four important areas.
This is because:
- A commitment to renting requires a commitment to investing in making the sector truly affordable, not just for the young professionals of Generation Rent, but for all in society. The opening up of the Affordable Homes programme to a range of products and tenures is to be welcomed, but the white paper’s strengthening of government’s resolve to continue its widely criticised policy of expanding the scope of the Right to Buy to Housing Associations will work counter to this. This is because it undermines investor confidence in housing association development.
- The white paper fails to grasp the nettle of poor standards in the Private Rented Sector. The PRS in Britain is in most part an informal cottage industry desperately in need of greater levels of professionalism and investment. Lenders want the certainty that their assets will be well managed, but the white paper offers nothing to tackle the notoriously shonky practices within the unregulated landlord and agent sectors.
- While a commitment to extend security of tenure is welcome, the white paper wants to rely on dialogue between government and landlords to achieve this. It is hard to see how this will be an effective approach without proper sticks and carrots.
- Finally, renting privately in too many parts of the country means living in cramped, poorly constructed and badly managed flats in areas without access to decent schools, health services, open space. Place-making – and more investment in services – needs to be at the heart of a radical approach to creating new communities and making renting work for families.
Will the housing white paper lead to a step change in the delivery of new homes? It says some things that move us in the right direction. For example, strengthening the powers of local authorities to ensure that, having obtained planning permission, developers “use it or lose it”, is welcome.
But the bigger prize is moving to a far more visionary and plan-led system, capable of delivering at scale, whilst also energising a decimated and moribund sector of small players (the SME builders). Without making the web of support schemes easier for mere mortals to understand and apply for, and without offering finance on better rates than your bank manager can, the HCA will do little to engage SMEs. Hopefully Homes England will turn its attention to this when it comes into being.
The white paper casually makes the links between a renewed industrial strategy for Britain and its housing market – but it needs to do more. Genuinely game-changing plans for new housing need to be aligned with innovative strategies for economic growth and jobs creation.
Simply subjecting councils to a needless “housing delivery test” (which would be fine were it not for the fact that councils don’t in the main deliver housing – developers do) misses the point. When builders do build, they do so cautiously and only where the demand is.
This is ultimately the point that Sajid Javid seems to miss in the white paper. He says, “the solution means building many more houses in the places that people want to live”. The real strategy should be creating the places where people want to live.
This can be achieved through a combination of sound economic development, visionary planning, and investment in infrastructure – and, with the right mix of encouragement and incentive – we can then expect the developers to rise to the challenge.
Dr Ed Ferrari is a senior lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at the University of Sheffield.