The rumours around Westminster in recent weeks have been that Michael Gove wanted a big challenge. Well, yesterday the Prime Minister certainly gave him one.
Housing has had six different cabinet ministers in as many years, and throughout that period out of control rent prices, inadequate and underfunded social housing and homelessness, has only got worse. We are in a country where over 100,000 children are homeless, stuck in awful emergency accommodation, and thousands of people are sleeping rough. Meanwhile, each year we see a net loss of tens of thousands of social homes, precisely the type of homes we need if we’re going to tackle this emergency. This is a problem that has built up over decades, but we can’t let it last a moment longer.
It’s good that the PM has put someone who wants to think big in charge of fixing this crisis, particularly one who in the past has committed to hundreds of thousands more social homes. And things aren’t all bleak – there are great ideas out there to make progress as well as opportunities to deliver them. Below you can find a few of them that we think should be at the top of Michael Gove’s new red box and which would give him a head start in bringing about the revolution we all need.
I’ve split the suggestions from how existing plans could be designed to have the most success and then included a few new ideas that would help get us to the kind of housing system that will work for everyone.
Existing plans – Planning and social housing
Firstly, Michael Gove needs to turn his head to the ambitious planning reforms – and design a system that makes sure we get many more social homes. Michael Gove can make sure that ‘affordable housing’ public money goes on actual ‘affordable housing’ social housing.
The current planning system lets landowners keep too much of the value of land from the communities they profit from – the Planning Bill is an opportunity to fix that and make it fairer for all communities by reforming our broken land market.
There are more small changes that would mean a big difference to how we provide social housing. For instance, as Conservative MP Paul Maynard has written, arbitrary rules make it hard for areas like Blackpool to benefit from government grants on social housing. This makes no sense in areas like Blackpool where the lack of social housing means people have been forced into the private rented sector. The welfare bill is vast, with 89% of private renters in Blackpool reliant on housing benefit to pay the rent. Good for their landlords that the state pays for their investment, but bad for levelling up. And an easy rule to reverse.
Existing plans – Social housing regulation
Other vital changes needed are ready to go but have not yet been enacted. After the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, Government promised to act to ensure social housing tenants had a voice and the regulatory protections they deserved. Whilst a White Paper was published that had many positive ideas to fix this, a date for bringing in the new law wasn’t in the Queen’s Speech and many campaigners are worried it has been kicked into the long grass. The plans are ready, the legislation could well even be drafted – it’s time to put into law what was promised over four years ago.
Existing plans – Renters’ reform
The upcoming Renters’ Reform Bill gives the chance to finally reset the balance of justice in renting. The sector has changed exponentially since the last comprehensive reform was introduced in the 1980s, with people now forced to live in private rented accommodation from the cradle to the grave. These people need security. That is why the plan to scrap no-fault evictions is so important. But renters also need to feel like they are making an informed choice about who they rent their homes from, which is why a National Register of Landlords is crucial, so renters can at least check if their landlord is legally compliant. In no other market does a consumer have so little knowledge about the product or service they are about to purchase – it’s time to fix that.
An ambitious Renters’ Reform Bill will deliver relief for England’s 11 million private renters. Michael Gove should seize the opportunity with both hands.
Existing plans – Ending rough sleeping and homelessness for good
The government’s election manifesto committed to ending rough sleeping for good. In the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we saw it was possible with the great work done through the Everyone In scheme. Now we need a roadmap out of rough sleeping to deliver it. In the short term, he should confirm Everyone In will be funded over this harsh winter, so plans can be put in place to keep people safe. And it’s time to make all homelessness a thing of the past by properly funding homelessness prevention measures like social housing.
New ideas – Affordable Homes Programme
In the current Affordable Homes Programme (the main funding scheme outside of contribution from planning), you would need to earn twice the average national household income to keep up payments for so-called ‘affordable’ home ownership schemes. Yet it is these tenures that make up the majority of the housing that the AHP provides. That is as wasteful as it is immoral – and could be changed straight away.
Another quick fix would be something that would let government funding deliver more homes, more affordably. This would be by announcing the next 10 years of the AHP now, rather than waiting until 2025/6 to announce the next tranche of funding. This would let Housing Associations do more with the money, ending the ups and downs of delivery we have seen in the five-year cycle and giving Housing Associations more clarity and confidence to purchase sites that don’t currently have planning permission, let them take on more complex sites and do more ambitious joint ventures. That’s why we put this idea in our submission to the Spending Review.
New ideas – Net-zero and housing
The Future Homes Standard will be in place by 2025, meaning all new homes will have to be compliant with net-zero. Yet the cost of retrofitting existing homes is estimated at over £20,000 a property on average, three times higher than doing so in a new build and a cost that is as financially impossible as it is unfair for those already hit by extortionate and rising housing costs.
Right now, even Housing Associations are still building homes that are not up-to-standard, meaning they will have to later pay again to retrofit their properties. Fewer than 1.5% of new homes built by Housing Associations would reach the top rating according to an Inside Housing investigation.
That is why at Shelter, we put a small idea that we think could make big difference, in our suggestions for the government’s Spending Review. We believe a pilot of 10,000 climate-resilient and carbon-negative homes offered at a social rent, could be piloted to reduce costs and show how a net-zero transition could help the most vulnerable reduce bills and produce better places to live.
This would grow the market for essential new technologies, raise the installation skills base and reduce the costs for deploying net-zero technology across all existing and new housing, including for retrofit, by using the ability for new build social housing to deliver on a broad scale across the country.
Ask Michael Gove to fix the housing emergency
We need the new Secretary of State to know that our priorities need to be his priorities. If you agree with our priorities to improve renter’s rights, build social housing and help those at risk of street homelessness during the pandemic, you can sign our open letter today. Help us ensure winning the fight for home is at the very top of Michael Gove’s to-do list. Please join us.