Ten myths about council housing – and one ask

The New Era Estate, Hoxton. Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington on what we get wrong about council housing.

Everyone seems to agree that we have a housing crisis in London and that we need to increase the supply of genuinely affordable homes. And everyone, including the Prime Minister, seems to agree that a big part of this must be building more new council homes.

So the question is, how do we get council homes built in sufficient numbers to start addressing the housing crisis? To begin, we need to correct some widely-held, but inaccurate, views on council housing. Let’s do some myth-busting.

1. Council housing is subsidised

It isn’t. Far from it.

Here in Islington, most council housing blocks were built decades ago and tenants have been paying rent on their properties ever since. Council housing is administered through an account that is separate from all other local authority spending, the Housing Revenue Account, which has to remain solvent.

Council housing pays for itself either through rents or by the building of some new private homes for open market sale. This is what many councils have to do in the absence of government funding.

2. Housing Benefit covers the majority of Council tenants’ rent

It doesn’t. Households who claim housing benefit to help pay their rent live in all kinds of tenures in both the private rented and the social rented sectors.

Between 1995-96 and 2015-16, the UK’s housing benefit bill increased by 51 per cent – with the largest increase being in the private rented sector, which has seen a rise of 57 per cent over the past two decades.

Housing someone in the private rented sector costs an average of £110 per week in housing benefit compared with £89 in social housing, an extra 23 per cent. Far fewer people would be reliant on housing benefit if they were able to access council housing in the first place, and the government’s housing benefit bill would also come right down – freeing up more funds annually to spend on building new council homes.

3. Council rents are too low and most people can afford the Government’s new “affordable” rents

They can’t. “Affordable Rents”, under the government’s Orwellian definition, are set at up to 80 per cent of market rent in any given area. In Islington, this is completely unaffordable for most people. The median rent in Islington is £1733 per month. With the median gross monthly salary in the borough at £2713, many private rents are around two thirds the average income.

4. Councils don’t care about council housing anymore – they spend their time building private housing

We do care – and we get little government support to build.

In Islington this year, we are building more new council homes than at any time in the last 30 years. But we are forced to build some private housing as part of our new developments to help pay for the new council homes. We do not have the funding to do it any other way.

5. Right to Buy is fine because it replaces any homes that are lost

It doesn’t. Under the current rules, local authorities only receive 75 per cent of the proceeds of any property that is sold under Right to Buy. The rest goes to the government.

But government red-tape means that this receipt is only allowed to be used to pay for one third of the build costs of a new council home: we still need to find the other two thirds.

Right to Buy proceeds are also not allowed to be combined with any other grant funding, so many councils are struggling to spend them in the time allowed by government.

6. Yes, but the Government gives out grants for councils to build new homes

This has been cut massively and doesn’t fund the cost of building council homes.

In London, councils can obtain grants of £60k per new council home from the Greater London Authority, but this generally doesn’t cover any more than a third of the build costs of a new home and it cannot be combined with Right to Buy receipts. Government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

7. Then councils should just borrow more to build more

We’d love to, but we can’t. Sadly, councils can’t just borrow to build. The government caps the amount that local authorities can borrow through the Housing Revenue Account.

In our new developments in Islington, the current split between council housing and private housing is around 60:40. If this cap – what we like to call the ‘New Home Blocker’ – was lifted, we could make it 85:15, immediately converting hundreds more new private homes into council homes.

8. Why not just borrow to build homes outside of the Housing Revenue Account then?

We can’t.

Non-housing spending is administered through a local authority’s General Fund. But in an absurd quirk of the rules, councils would be permitted to borrow to invest in commercial property anywhere in the country through this fund, but not to invest to build self-financing council homes for local people that would reduce the housing benefit bill.

9. Councils should rebuild existing estates and use a more efficient design, creating new council homes for the existing residents and more council homes for new residents

Sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? In Islington we’re building new council homes out of old garages, on unused parts of estates, and on top of existing council blocks.

However, unlike new council homes, there is no grant funding available for replacing existing council homes. The bottom line for Islington is that any project must create more council homes than we had before – otherwise, why do it? So larger scale rebuild projects are impossible for us under the current rules.


10. The problem is the bureaucracy of the planning system

Ah, that old chestnut. Conservative peer and Chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, has said that, “The truth is that councils are currently approving nine in ten planning applications, which shows that the planning system is working well and is not a barrier to building.”

The noble lord is also refreshingly succinct when it comes to how we can get more homes built. “The last time the country delivered 300,000 homes which this country needs each year, in the 1970s, councils were responsible for more than 40 per cent of them and it’s essential that we get back to that. In order for that to happen, councils have to be able to borrow to build homes again.”

So I have one ask of the Government: cut the ‘red tape’ around building new council homes

Scraping the New Home Blocker would immediately allow us to build hundreds of new council homes in Islington alone, and would free other councils across the country to do the same.  

Ending the restrictions on the use of Right to Buy receipts and grants would also help councils to build more new council homes.

There is no lack of political will in local authorities to build council homes – but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.