Lord Best’s Affordable Housing Commission (AHC) recently published its final report following an 18-month review of housing affordability in England. It adds yet more weight – if any more were needed – to the enormous pile of evidence that Britain’s housing crisis needs a workable solution. Fast.
It has become a perennial problem: how to get Britain building the affordable housing it desperately needs. The headline from Lord Best’s commission is that one in five households in England are under ‘housing stress’ and spending disproportionately on their housing costs. The report highlights the structural imbalance within the current housing system, with an eroded social housing stock and the increased role of the private rented sector in meeting affordable need being the driving force behind this. We now need to build 90,000 new social rented homes a year, say Lord Best and his team.
The shock factor is waning each time a report like this is published. In 2019, Shelter said the country needed 3 million new social housing units to solve the housing crisis. Just last week, the Chartered Institute of Housing called for a significant increase in grant levels for social housing which have fallen “dangerously low” in England over the last ten years.
The timing of the AHC’s report, however, provides extra reason to sit up and listen. The extension of the Affordable Homes Programme in the recent budget was hardly the game changer many in the sector had hoped for. However, a highly anticipated planning white paper is (in theory) due in the next few months. In addition to that, the spending review – pencilled in for summer but now delayed, again, this time due to Covid-19 – also offers a chance for a step change in delivery.
But with the UK’s political and planning regimes both in a state of flux, who will it be that drives the much-needed delivery of affordable homes?
Among other recommendations, the AHC report looks at regional growth and the role of combined authorities and metro mayors in meeting housing targets. It calls for “maximum local discretion” to tackle these issues, rightly recognising there are housing crises, specific to regions. A one-size fits all model clearly won’t cut it.
England’s eight city-regions now cover 51 local authorities and over a quarter of the country’s population (excluding London, itself governed by an elected Mayor and regional assembly). But the story of devolved power in England over the past decade has been stop-start. Political analysts looking for a ‘conventional’ metro mayor model will likely be searching for some time yet.
With the right leadership, the likes of Andy Burnham and Andy Street have shown that metro mayors can be effective figureheads. Now, regional power must make the most of a new Conservative government that has reasons to listen. The party is acutely aware it needs to make good on success in the north and midlands at the general election. The regions should capitalise on this opportunity to lobby for the extra powers they need to kick-start affordable housing delivery at the level required.
The spring Budget offered reasons for optimism. The Covid-19 response package and headline spending on infrastructure caught the headlines, but the Chancellor’s commitment to “London-style funding settlements” for combined authorities worth £4.2 billion for transport could do a lot to unlock growth. We’ve seen in London how transport-led regeneration can drive wider renewal – and how large, brownfield sites tend to provide higher levels of affordable housing. There’s £400 million from the Budget heading towards “ambitious mayors” who can help bring these kinds of sites forward.
The Government will continue to drip feed this sort of funding to the regions in the years to come – it wants to see combined authorities be bold and bring forward new ideas. If it sees results, more cash should follow.
Devolving housing power to the regions is a ball that’s already rolling. In the capital, central government grant gave way to a Greater London Authority model that is widely seen as effective. Other regions now need to learn from this while creating something distinctly local.
The AHC report concludes by saying a “coalition of the willing” is forming to make the changes it calls for. Well, if the Budget is just a taster of things to come and the combined authorities are ready to be harbingers of change, an opportunity is on the horizon and we can begin to rebalance our broken housing system.
Ben Halliday is an account executive at Camargue