It’s time to let councils build, says the Labour mayor of Hackney.
Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
I was reminded of those words last week when Sajid Javid told the National Housing Federation’s annual conference that he would start a “nationwide conversation on social housing” by bringing forward a green paper that would be “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review” of the issues facing the sector.
Presumably this is different to the “proper conversation” that the communities secretary said his damp squib of a Housing White Paper would kick-start just a few months ago.
Javid also said his green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. Clearly the minister has forgotten about his own government’s Housing & Planning Act – the hugely damaging piece of legislation his predecessor drove through Parliament just a year ago, against the wishes of local councils, housing associations and tenants.
The Tories are now carrying out the third review of why this country’s housing system is fundamentally broken in little over 12 months. And every time they ask people up and down the country what the problem is, they get the same answer – the government’s obsession with leaving the market to deliver the hundreds of thousands of new homes we need simply isn’t working.
The NHF’s own research, published as the minister made his announcement, shows funding for new social homes is at an all-time low – at just 0.2 per cent of GDP.
In 2010, the government decided that there would be longer be any public money to build homes for social rent – and construction of these homes ground to a halt almost overnight. In 2010-11, just under 36,000 social rented homes were started. The next year, work started on just over 3,000.
This is bad for everyone. Bad for the 120,000 children in living in temporary hostels and B&Bs because there’s not a council home for them. Bad for private renters, like those in my borough of Hackney who pay nearly £2,000 per month for a two-bed flat while facing the impossible task of saving for their first home as prices hit record highs. And bad for the government, whose housing benefit bill has spiralled to £25.1bn – costing every man, woman and child in the UK £400 every year – with more and more of that money paid to private landlords, who are propping up a broken market by housing those who can’t find social housing.
Councils like Hackney, the borough I lead, have repeatedly said that they stand ready to fill this void. Despite getting zero funding to build social housing, we’re already building 4,000 homes in the next few years – with more than half for social rent and shared ownership, paid for by some for outright sale. If only ministers would abandon the sell-off of social housing and cut the unnecessary red tape that means we can’t access the finance we need to build, we could do so much more.
It seems to be an answer that Mr Javid doesn’t like. What other reason is there for this latest “conversation”?
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there is of course a need to make sure that tenants are properly heard. Clearly, that has gone badly wrong in Kensington and Chelsea. But the failings of one Conservative council should not be an excuse to try to further erode the role of local authorities in providing safe, secure and high-quality housing for their residents.
Instead of pointlessly fiddling around in Whitehall, ministers should abandon their market-led dogma and give councils and housing associations the funding and borrowing freedoms they need to get building in big numbers.
The government’s tired old ideas have been failing to fix this housing crisis for seven years, with every previous intervention making the situation worse. Perhaps instead of lecturing from Whitehall, it’s time ministers listened and let those who are managing their fiasco on the frontline take the lead in solving it.
Cllr Philip Glanville is the Labour mayor of Hackney.