Councils need some serious funding if they are to return to large-scale housebuilding

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This is an article for Inside Housing magazine

A week after the General Election Swindon Council leader David Renard wrote an article for Prospect magazine in his capacity as Environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association. Amongst other things he said:

“A return to large-scale council housebuilding is the only way to boost housing supply, help families struggling to meet housing costs, provide homes to rent, reduce homelessness, and tackle the housing waiting lists many councils have….Enabling councils to resume their historic role as major housebuilders of affordable homes must be at the top of this new government’s agenda.”

This conflicted with the tenor of the Conservative Party Manifesto which spoke of “rebalancing the housing market towards more home ownership”. Unfortunately this emphasis was reflected in the news that First Homes will be funded by Section 106 money which could otherwise fund council housing.

From 2010 the coalition and Conservative governments ignored the view of their own councillors in the LGA. Garry Porter previously commented that the last time 300,000 homes were built in Britain 40% or more were built by councils. “We need to get back to that,” he said. The Party leadership doesn’t agree. In the funding document produced alongside their Manifesto there was no sign of new money available for council house building. The only money shown was for a Social Housing decarbonisation fund.

The coalition government’s first affordable homes programme did have some funding for council housing though it insisted on driving rents up to “affordable rent” level, unaffordable for many. In its second affordable homes programme there was no money available for ‘social housing’, save for 8,000 supported housing units. They also ignored the LGA’s demand that councils should be able to keep 100% of RTB receipts, without which they cannot not replace those homes sold.

The latest homelessness statistics show that 70% of councils are spending more on homelessness than planned for. They planned to spend a total of £502.7 million in 2018/19. Yet they ended up overspending by a £140 million. This is an inevitable result of the continued fall in the number of of council homes available. Owing to the policies of these governments the number in England fell by 194,000 between 2010 and 2018. Since 2010 local authorities have completed only 14,980 new build council homes (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Live Table 253). This has barely replaced half of the 29,590 that have been demolished (a category which barely gains a mention).

Although there has been an increase in building as a result of raising the borrowing cap, it is on an insufficient scale to replace homes lost through Right to Buy and demolition. Moreover, as a result of the 2012 ‘debt settlement’ Housing Revenue Accounts have insufficient funds to renew their existing stock over the long term never mind building on a large scale. Council housing stock numbers have fallen in every year since 1979.

The Conservative Manifesto did talk of renewing the Affordable Homes Programme “in order to support the delivery of hundreds of thousands of affordable homes”, though this would include shared ownership. There is no sign of funding to build council housing on a large scale. The latest statistics from Homes England shows that of 57,543 properties funded with government grant 29,604 were “affordable home ownership” and a paltry 913 ‘social rent’.

Whilst David Renard’s words are welcome, tenants and those on housing waiting lists will want to know how serious he and the LGA are. Will they back these words up with action? What will they do to press the government to provide the funding that is needed for a large scale council home building programme?

Given the fact that Labour’s policy in its Manifesto was for the building of 100,000 council homes a year by the end of this Parliament, there should be no obstacle in the way of a cross party effort to press the government to provide the funding to “enable councils to resume their historic role as major housebuilders”. But is the LGA Conservative Group prepared to challenge its government? Private conversations with Minister will not shift them. Words are easy but they need to be acted upon otherwise those desperate for new council housing will draw the conclusion that the LGA has no serious intent.

Changes in policy in relation to the private rented sector, such as ending ‘no fault’ evictions, were the result of the combined efforts of a coalition of tenant groups and campaigns, which managed to raise the profile in the national media. Can we achieve the same in relation to grant for council house building?

The LGA has hundreds of councils affiliated. It should call on them to each write to the government calling for grant to fund large scale social rent council house building. They can each put some pressure on their local MPs too. A national focus for collective campaigning efforts could be a Parliamentary lobby with a high media profile. A broad based campaign will be necessary to shift the government. Without a return to building of social rent council homes sufficient to increase the numbers year on year then the housing crisis will continue to worsen and numbers will continue to fall.

Martin Wicks
Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

 

 

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