We were delighted that housing got such top billing in the recent General Election campaign – with David Cameron citing his desire to build the homes we need on the very steps of Downing Street. After such a dismal showing for housing in previous elections, this was real progress. But the true test of the new government’s commitment to solving our housing crisis was always going to come after the dust of the election had settled. Today’s Queen’s Speech was the first stage of that test. Sadly, the signs do not look good.
There will be a Housing Bill, which will include some useful moves to give cities more powers to build homes, and help for would-be self builders get access to plots of land. But the main focus of the Bill will be on extending the Right to Buy to housing associations and forcing councils to sell off their best social housing stock. We’re clear that flogging off much-needed affordable homes would worsen, not solve, our deepening housing crisis. Although very little detail has been published so far, it’s particularly worrying that the manifesto promise to replace all homes lost under this proposal (shaky though it is) did not make it into the Queens Speech. It remains to be seen if the all-important affordable housing budget – which George Osborne has pledged to continue throughout this parliament – will be protected in the inevitable spending cuts to come in the new Budget and Comprehensive Spend Review. This will be the acid test of the sincerity of the government’s commitment to getting more homes built, and one we’ll be watching carefully.
The Queen also announced plans for a Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill today. As expected, this confirmed proposals to remove housing benefit from many young people and reduce the overall benefit cap by £58 a week.
Shelter has long campaigned against the removal of housing benefit from young people unable to live with their families, as this would inevitably drive more people into homelessness. All young people need a stable home from which to improve their skills and find work and while many can find this with their own parents, we believe the safety net must continue to support those with no one else to turn to.
The government also reiterated its intention to freeze most working age benefits for two years. If LHA is included in the freeze then support for private renters risks falling further behind rising rents, making it harder for people to find affordable private rented homes.
The reduction in the benefit cap will also be experienced by families as a cut to housing benefit. Our analysis shows that this will affect families across London and the south east, while larger families will face shortfalls across the country. We’re concerned at the ability of families to absorb further cuts to housing benefit at a time when rents are rising.
But with the government hoping to find £12 billion in savings from the welfare budget, perhaps the most worrying thing about the welfare bill is the lack of detail. We know the measures announced to date only save a fraction of the £12 billion, so low and middle income families will inevitably be asking themselves, what’s next?
Lastly, the government confirmed that private landlords will be required to carry out checks on prospective renters’ immigration status. Landlords face a £3,000 fine if they let to someone who doesn’t have a right to be in the country. We’ve said before that we don’t think it’s reasonable to expect landlords to carry out these checks. They’re not immigration experts – and we’re concerned that vulnerable renters may struggle to provide their immigrations papers, making it even harder to rent.
All in all, this was not a good Queen’s Speech for housing and homelessness. Nonetheless, Shelter will try to work positively with the government on the good bits – particularly to get housing supply out of the doldrums and build the homes we need. But we will also challenge the proposed welfare cuts, which we know will hit those in most need the hardest. On this, we are absolutely clear: until the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes is solved, cutting the support people need to pay the rent will simply drive more people into the nightmare of homelessness. And Shelter will never stop campaigning against that.