We need serious investment and local powers to tackle the housing crisis once and for all
Councils need the financial resources to build social housing, properly resourced planning services, and the powers to ensure the permissions they give in great numbers are converted into the homes people need.
There is overwhelming evidence of a housing crisis in this country. The mismatch between supply and demand, over decades, has seen the cost of renting and buying go up and up relative to people’s wages.
The consequences have been stark. One in nine children lives in an overcrowded home. About one in every 200 people is homeless – either in temporary accommodation or sleeping rough. And 500,000 people are living in unsatisfactory conditions.
Last year our cross-party committee’s report, ‘Building more social housing,’ recommended we complete at least 90,000 social-rent homes a year for 15 years.
Anyone would be forgiven for raising their eyebrows at the scale of the challenge, but the numbers are so strikingly high for a reason.
Democratically elected councils should be at the heart of delivering the 300,000 homes a year the country needs
England has lost 1.5 million social homes since its peak of 5.52 million in 1981. Despite knowing for years about this worsening shortage, we have barely started to address the problem. In 2019, only 7,000 new social rent homes were finished – less than 10 per cent of what is needed.
We stated in our report that to hit that 90,000-a-year construction rate, the government should commit an extra £10bn a year in grants to local councils, up from the current £2.8bn.
Government should see this as an investment. Income from rents will be paid back to the Exchequer over decades, and the investment would create thousands of secure jobs in construction.
Looking back, we have never built 300,000 homes a year without a major public house building programme. Meanwhile, the supply of social housing continues to be eroded by Right to Buy sales and the demolition of ageing stock. Our committee, with agreement from both Labour and Conservative members, urged the government to reform Right to Buy.
Currently, when a social tenant purchases their home from their council – at an already discounted price – three quarters of the money goes to central government. We argue local authorities should keep 100 per cent of the receipts and use it to invest in new social housing. Not only that, but the three-year deadline for using that money should be extended.
Further to the government’s ambitions to accelerate house building, there has been much debate about its ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper, published last summer. Our committee expressed doubts about the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s plans for the complete revision of our local planning system labelling every site as land either for “Growth,” “Renewal” or to be “Protected”.
In our March 2021 report, ‘The future of the planning system in England,’ we were not convinced that the proposals would lead to an acceleration of house building. The problem is not the lack of planning permissions being granted but the slow build-out rate on approved sites. Local authorities need powers to ensure houses are built once permission is granted.
Other fundamental objections to the government’s planning proposals are the removal of the public’s right to be consulted on individual planning applications and the way in which housing allocations have been made, which has placed a particularly high demand on large cities while reducing housebuilding targets in some of the more deprived northern areas.
Lastly, we worry the government has viewed its recent changes to Permitted Development Rights (PDR) as a shortcut to hastily getting more homes on the market. In July, our report argued that allowing landlords to convert vacant shops into flats – without planning permission – could hamper efforts to revitalise high streets.
Democratically elected councils should be at the heart of delivering the 300,000 homes a year the country needs.
They need the financial resources to build social housing, properly resourced planning services, and the powers to ensure the permissions they give in great numbers are converted into the homes people need.
Clive Betts is the Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
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