Investment in housing is needed now to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis – and to deliver an economic recovery that truly levels up. But unfortunately, Government investment so far has been skewed massively towards the owner occupation market. The stamp duty tax holiday – on properties worth up to £500,000 until the end of March 2021 – will cost the Exchequer an estimated £3.8billion and has had the perverse effect of actually increasing house prices.
Meanwhile, latest details of the new Affordable Homes Programme show a greater share of taxpayers’ cash being devoted to supporting affordable home ownership products such as shared ownership. We need Government to give Homes England the ability to work with councils and housing associations to fund the truly affordable energy and carbon efficient homes that local people actually need, rather than dictating quotas from Whitehall.
Of course, we support the aspiration to home ownership, but the priority identified in the Greater Manchester housing strategy – ‘Safe, decent and affordable homes’ – is 50,000 truly affordable homes by 2037, of which 30,000 would be at social or affordable rents. The reality of falling earnings as the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic impact continues makes that even more important than ever. Government needs to focus the nation’s investment where it can make the biggest difference to people’s lives.
Without enough affordable homes, the 100,000 people who are on Greater Manchester councils’ housing registers will stay there. (Incidentally this figure corresponds almost exactly with the 95,000 homes lost to the right to buy since 1980 many of which have never been replaced.) It would also mean that the valiant efforts of the Mayor and all Greater Manchester local authorities to end homelessness will be frustrated. Currently all 450 emergency accommodation places for people at risk of rough sleeping are being used, and rough sleeping has started to increase again – to more than a hundred people on a single night.
The future at this particularly precarious time for so many people – in fear for their jobs or self-employed people with substantial drops in income – has to be about lobbying and campaigning. Already Greater Manchester has vigorously, and successfully, influenced the Government on a range of issues including on temporary increases in Universal Credit; the evictions ban; extended notice periods; and ensuring unaffordability doesn’t constitute intentionally homeless.
But there is much more that is likely to be needed over the coming winter including providing direct financial support to protect tenants from building up rent arrears as a consequence of COVID-19; ensuring that councils have enough emergency prevention monies (the £180m Discretionary Housing Payment is certainly not going to be enough); removing or suspending the benefit cap; restoring to the 50th percentile of local market rents for the LHA; and allowing direct payments to landlords. We await announcements.
However, what is really needed is a sea change in the Government’s thinking so that it sees addressing the housing challenge as a solution to the recession and an answer to meeting the nation’s net zero ambitions. After World War Two homes were built in their tens of thousands and homelessness was rendered statistically negligible. We could, and should, do this again in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the process transform our construction sector through the adoption of modern methods of construction.
The Affordable Housing Commission’s 12 point housing-led recovery plan report showed how Government – in partnership with local government and the housing sector – can make housing affordable and support economic growth. The equally impressive proposal for a £1.3billion National Housing Conversion Fund would not only add to the supply of affordable homes but also improve the condition and quality of our existing housing stock. It would also provide a way out of the private rented sector for those landlords who may be unable to maintain decent standards of management and repair.
Another future is possible. In Greater Manchester we continue to make the case for devolved powers and devolved solutions, because there is no single housing crisis in the UK, but a series of different local housing crises. With appropriate powers, including local discretion on right to buy, and multi-year funding in place to allow a more strategic approach to investment, we can deliver a renaissance in affordable housing which also supports the green economic recovery.
Mayor Paul Dennett: GMCA Portfolio Holder for Housing and Homelessness