Autumn Statement 2014: encouraging signs

Today’s autumn statement was pretty good for housing. It showed a welcome willingness by the government to start addressing some of the fundamental problems – now we need real action to make good on the promises.

Shelter exists to help people struggling with bad housing or homelessness – and to campaign to prevent it in the first place.  That’s why we defend the housing safety net wherever it’s under threat, resisting attempts to weaken support for those needing help to keep a roof over their head, and why we campaign for better protections for renters. It’s also why we’ve spent much of the last few years demanding that government address England’s desperate housing shortage, and promoting radical policies to fix it: we know that in the long run, we’ll never end homelessness unless there are enough homes that people can afford to rent or buy.

So it was very encouraging to see the Treasury finally beginning to take our housing shortage seriously, with a series of announcements over the last couple of days. Today’s big reveal was the change to Stamp Duty: in general, this is good news – the ‘slab system’ was always a nonsense, and distorted the market at the price thresholds. And the move to increase the rates on higher priced homes could help reduce upward price pressure on already absurdly expensive homes. Admittedly, and despite what some commentators are saying, the reduction in rates on homes at the lower end of the market won’t actually improve affordability for buyers: as the OBR’s report makes clear (on p125), house prices will rise to match the reduction in stamp duty charged, leaving hard pressed first time buyers in exactly the same position. But it’s still a sensible reform – and one we’ve called for before.

While most of the media response has focused on the new(ish) Garden City at Bicester, there were two  other announcements that  received much less coverage. Firstly, the government has confirmed an additional £1.9 billion investment for housing associations in the next parliament, which is the equivalent of 110,000 new Shared Ownership or Affordable Rent homes.

This policy is far from perfect. We want to see the investment budget increased further and the terms of the programme changed so that Social Rent homes are funded (as well as Shared Ownership homes). But in the context of major cuts to almost every policy area, getting a public commitment from the government to increase spending on new affordable homes is important.

Secondly, the commitment to explore ‘direct government commissioning’ of house building could be a major step forward. Not only does this recognise what Shelter has been saying for years – that the existing, private sector led house building system simply cannot build the homes we need without public intervention. It also suggests the penny is finally dropping in Whitehall: sometimes the quickest, fairest and most efficient way to get homes built is for the public sector to take the lead, and actually start putting bricks on top of bricks.

There may be more positive moves in the pipeline too: we’ve identified problems faced by shared owners when they come to sell their homes, and are glad the government will be looking into this, as this is a growing sector that needs to work better for people. And we’re very encouraged at the news that next year’s Budget will introduce reforms to the Compulsory Purchase Order process, as this is a critical technical barrier to getting more land at reasonable prices for development.

While there is a long, long way to go, our call for government to take responsibility for building more affordable homes is getting now a better hearing in all three parties than it has for many years. Our job now will be to make sure these promises are kept – while continuing to defend protections and support for those bearing the brunt of the housing shortage.