The housing association Moat, in conjunction with international law firm Trowers & Hamlins, yesterday hosted a discussion to assess the issues facing the sector over the next parliament.
Housing was a central feature of the Tory election campaign, with the extension of Right to Buy and the promise of 200,000 new homes for first time buyers featuring prominently.
A post-election poll by Lord Ashcroft revealed that Conservative voters felt the country was going in the right direction, and with a mandate to deliver its manifesto in full the Tory pledges on housing will soon be set in motion.
But with prices putting home ownership out of reach for many and the construction industry warning of a severe skills shortage, addressing the issues may prove challenging.
Senior industry figures, who attended yesterday’s event, expressed some scepticism over the government’s plans, including Moat CEO, Elizabeth Austerberry, who raised concerns over the Prime Minister’s remarks made earlier this week.
She said: “Whilst it was good to see housing underlined as a major issue in the PM’s first speech back at Number 10, there was no mention whatsoever of a commitment to genuine affordability. The focus is very much on building houses that people can own.” Austerberry went on to say that, “These comments are reflective of the problems we face going forward, because affordability is the fundamental issue.”
Housing charity Shelter’s head of policy Toby Lloyd added that the extension of the controversial Right to Buy scheme could dramatically deplete UK housing stock as it was being funded through the “forced sale of council houses”.
“We could really be looking at the abolition of social housing in fairly short order,” he said.
Austerberry echoed the concerns, saying the revenue generated would be offset by the high cost of replacing public housing.
The affordability of the new houses for ordinary people was also questioned by several attendees.
Also critical of the policy was Sovereign Housing Association’s Clare Powell, who explained that many tenants keen to utilise the Right to Buy were often denied access to the necessary finance.
She also pointed out those on low incomes were being excluded from home ownership by high deposits, with banks currently unwilling to provide more favourable terms.
Austerberry described the lack of affordability as a serious problem, and said it was particularly affecting those living in London and on the outskirts of the capital.
“As people move further away to find houses that are affordable, we see them moving to areas with high levels of benefit dependency… Effectively there is a cycle of deprivation here that is being enforced,” she said.
Referring to David Cameron’s announcement on Monday on the Government’s intention to lower the benefit cap, she added: “If you couple that with the benefit cap that really becomes a major problem.
“At £23,000 our three bedroom properties instantly become unaffordable if that family is benefit dependent.”
Housing consultant, Andrew Heywood, expanded the discussion, speculating on how the rise of the SNP in Scotland and further devolution would affect policy.
He said: “You got a very interesting political geography, particularly in terms of housing… housing policy is of course devolved…however welfare reform is not.
“The interesting issues will be whether the devolved settlement initially promised offers Scotland and Wales significant power to modify future welfare cuts or whether it will come in before those changes come in and what those devolved governments choose to do, whether they have enough wiggle room to reverse the law or not.”
This issue of homelessness was also addressed, with Lloyd warning that “there is some dangers there may be some changes to the homelessness regulation, because traditionally the obvious solution is to just change the rules so they do not count as homeless anymore.”
Moat recently published their Recommendations for the next Parliament. To read these and their other studies,