Let's get housing right in 2020
CIH chief executive Gavin Smart looks ahead to a new year, a new UK government and how we can work together as a sector to get housing working for everybody.
We know that for far too many people in our country housing isn’t working. Affordable homes aren’t affordable; the right housing isn’t where people need it; and when all’s said and done there just aren’t enough homes. This has led to a national crisis of housing instability and homelessness, which in its turn negatively impacts on the whole fabric of our society.
The crisis we face is not the result of any one policy – or any one government. And the solutions are not simple either. But at CIH we know what needs to be done to put us back on track.
Since CIH started life as the Association of Women Housing Workers in 1916 we have worked with governments of all colours and housing providers of all types to improve the lives of our fellow-citizens. And we are ready to work with the new government to put in the place the measures needed to create a future in which everyone has a safe, secure and affordable place to call home.
There are some steps the government could take to make sure the right homes are built in the right places, and that people can afford them.
For decades councils were significant house builders. They can and should be again, but they face significant barriers in terms of their powers and funding. Removing the borrowing caps, as the last government did, was a big step in the right direction and we know we can go further to free up local authorities to do even more.
Rebalancing the current housing budget to invest a fairer proportion in affordable housing would be a big help, as would giving councils new flexibility in areas like planning.
Affordability is at the heart of the current housing crisis. After all, if you can’t afford to get and maintain a decent home, how can you build a stable life and plan for the future?
Unfortunately, changes to the welfare system have added to the difficulties many people face in finding a home they can afford. We think the new government has a great opportunity to take a step back and review the cumulative impact of the various welfare changes since 2012.
There are some immediate steps the new government could take:
• Unfreeze and update local housing allowance rates so they once again meet the cheapest 30 per cent of rents in all areas Our latest analysis – Frozen Out – shows just how far adrift help with housing costs has become from actual rents.
• Slow down the roll-out of universal credit to make sure it achieves its objective of supporting people into and in work and remove the five-week waiting period
• Scrap the lower benefit cap and the bedroom tax – these are blunt instruments that hit the people most in need of help while delivering comparatively small gains
In a civilised society it should be a given that everyone has access to a decent, safe place to call home. But this is sadly just not the case in Britain today. We badly need more – many more - genuinely affordable homes, including a substantial number – we think about 90,000 a year – at the most affordable social rents.
It’s not just about the numbers. New homes must be of good quality and in thriving communities to meet the needs of future generations. We need homes with good space standards, to allow families to grow without uprooting in search of a larger home, that are easy to heat and affordable to run now and to meet the challenges of reaching zero carbon in the future.
And it’s not just an issue of new homes. We need to make the homes we already have fit for the future too. Many of them are not even fit for the present - and we know there’s a lot of work to do to make them all safe as well as sustainable.
Investing in our existing homes and neighbourhoods, perhaps through an enhanced Decent Homes Standard, building in safety and retrofitting to achieve decarbonisation are all costly but necessary to make sure that we are housed well now and for years to come.
Currently only seven per cent of our homes have basic accessibility features, and only one per cent are suitable for people using a wheelchair. This means that many people who need more help as they get older are forced to move because their homes just aren’t adaptable.
We also need to recognise the importance of good quality supported housing and housing-related support services for a range of needs backed by the funding to make it possible. Not only do those services enable people to live happy, safe and independent lives – they also play a vital part in preventing homelessness and aiding resettlement.
We need a long-term vison to end homelessness. The Homelessness Reduction Act and rough sleeping funding have been welcome, but they are mainly about managing homelessness. We need to end it. We need to see new homes at social rents, and people receiving full help with their housing costs. We also need help to support those who need it to sustain their tenancies.
We welcomed the last government’s move to end ‘no fault’ evictions by repealing section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. We should do more, and look at longer tenancies, tied to a set of standards covering all rented homes, so people really can put down roots and plan for their futures.
Housing is the foundation on which people truly realise their full potential in education and employment and build happy families in thriving and sustainable communities. Get it right, and so much else falls into place.
CIH looks forward to working with the new government and our partners across the sector to get housing right.