We need more social homes, says housing minister. But are we getting them?

Published: by Tarun Bhakta

Picture of apartment blocks set against a blue sky

The latest Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher, declared ‘We need more homes and more affordable homes, and more socially rented homes’ in Parliament this week (beginning 8 June 2020).

He’s right. We certainly do need more social homes. With a recession looming and over 280,000 people homeless in England, it’s clear we need to build more homes that are genuinely affordable – to provide desperately needed accommodation and a boost to the economy.

But we must be clear about what ‘more’ means. With over one million households on social housing waiting lists last year, it must mean having more social rent homes available to let to these households than we did last year. And this means building more than we are losing. But we have stopped delivering enough of the homes people really need. In fact in recent times, we’ve lost much more social housing than we’ve built.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) select committee’s inquiry into ‘the long-term delivery of social and affordable rent housing’ took a forensic look at why this is – and invited the housing minister to give evidence.

At times, the housing minister gave a rosier picture of the situation than many of the other experts that have faced the committee. Most notably, he stated that 120,000 homes sold in recent years through the Right to Buy programme had been replaced by 140,000 new builds – suggesting something like a net addition. But on closer inspection, these figures don’t hold up.

Counting the losses

The government knows that net additions are the right measure on housing supply. It uses this figure in its overall house-building figures. But when talking about ‘affordable housing’ delivery, net addition statistics all too often make way for a more carefully selected combination of figures. This bad habit reappeared at Monday’s inquiry, with the minister’s 140,000 new builds claim.

Firstly, these replacements are not like for like. When challenged, the housing minister quickly admitted that the 140,000 includes all forms of affordable housing completed – not just homes for social rent. Secondly, Right to Buy sales do not account for all of the social homes we lose each year. Other sales, demolition, and conversions to other types of housing happen often. If the government really wants to see more social rent homes, it needs to begin by being honest about the social rent homes actually delivered and all of the losses.  

The government must do better

The past 22 years have seen a net loss of nearly 400,000 homes for social rent. The number of new social rent homes delivered in 2018/19 was a paltry 6,287. In the same period, sales, demolition, and conversions into other types of homes totalled 23,740. This amounted to a net loss of 17,453.

This means there are fewer social homes today than there were a year ago. These figures show we must do much better if we want to achieve anything like a net addition of social housing.

The government says it does want to see more social housing. And the housing minister did say that the government has a plan to deliver more: ‘To do this we are bringing forward £12 billion of funding, as the Chancellor outlined in March.’ £12.2 billion in grant funding was announced at this year’s Budget, for the Affordable Homes Programme from 2021/22. This is £3 billion more in total than the previous scheme, which has been running since 2016.

We welcome this announcement – it is a great step forward. But the government needs to do more, especially as the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) has shown just how important secure, quality housing is. The government must confirm that a large proportion of these funds will be made available for the delivery of social rent homes as soon as possible. It must also go further, by committing to delivering a significant increase in social housing as central to its post-coronavirus economic recovery plans.

Will we really see more social housing?

The housing minister wasn’t clear on when the Affordable Homes Programme money would be confirmed. But he was clear that it would not specify any particular amount for social rent homes: ‘It is not the case that we will put numbers on the homes we want; we want more new houses, but not necessarily a certain type of tenure. It is up to local authorities to assess need in various places.’

We know that when assessing local need, local authorities discover huge unmet need for social rent homes. But we also know that local authorities have been unable to meet that need with through previous funding regimes.

According to data from Homes England – the government’s own ‘housing accelerator’ – only 4% of the homes outside of London funded through the previous Affordable Homes Programme were for social rent. Nick Walkley, chief executive officer (CEO) of Homes England, said just minutes before in front of the same committee that the numbers of new social homes is a direct result of the funding regime that providers operate in.

So until we see a clear commitment from government to make funds specifically available for much more social housing, we cannot be certain that this funding will get us nearer to a net addition figure.

And other government plans threaten to take us further away.

When questioned, the housing minister failed to confirm what the impact of the government’s proposed First Homes policy would be on social housing delivery. Instead he pointed to the Affordable Homes Programme commitment. We have said before that if the government’s First Homes plans do go ahead, they pose a huge threat to a key source of social housing supply. The new Affordable Homes Programme might deliver more than its predecessor, but it’s no use if other sources of social housing supply start to deliver less.

Talk about net additions

There are many ways to increase the supply of social housing. There are many ways to chip away at it too. Saying ‘we want more’, means being clear about what more means. At the very least, it means delivering more than we are losing year on year; delivering net additions of social housing. The government has the right ambition in wanting more social homes. But it needs to be frank about the scale of that ambition and, hopefully, in doing so focus their resources in meeting it – if it does so, millions in our country would benefit.