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Housing White Paper: Our Panel Reacts

This afternoon the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid presented the long-awaited Housing White Paper to the House of Commons. Here are our panel's initial thoughts.

Kevin Gulliver, Director of the Human City Institute, former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and member of SHOUT save social housing campaign.

While there are some progressive elements in today’s Housing White Paper, the government’s strategy falls short of confronting the housing crisis in England.

Welcome are initiatives to accelerate house-building; incentives for older home owners to downscale, freeing up housing for the young; a return to establishing house-building targets for local authorities; penalties for ‘land-banking’; some expansion of council housing; and limited measures to tackle insecurity and housing standards in the private rented sector.   

However, the Housing White Paper fails to confront three aspects of the housing crisis: affordability, a lack of social housing, and homelessness.

Affordability remains a key failure of the ‘broken housing market’. The median house price in England has climbed to 7.6 times median earnings. The average earner would need a 4% increase in wages every year for 25 years, with no increase in house prices at all over this period, for affordability to return to 1997 levels.

Private rents increasingly take up a larger slice of wages, worsening private rental affordability, with above inflation increases in rents seen across the country for the last decade, and even higher increases in London.

The White Paper does nothing to boost social housing after forty years of decline. Building new social housing has multiple advantages – it is more secure, has much lower rents, which helps keep the housing benefit bill down compared with the private rented sector, is greater value for money, and provides a long-term national asset.

Yet the government’s housing strategy does nothing to reverse or slow the Right to Buy, or accelerate the low replacement rate of sold homes, reducing the social housing stock even further at a time of growth in the number of families seeking housing.

Despite the government’s rhetoric about concentrating on affordable rent, rather than obsessing over rates of home ownership, there has been no re-balancing of spending priorities away from starter homes and shared ownership.

Homelessness and in situ housing needs are not seen as important in the government’s housing strategy either. Growing homelessness and rough sleeping require a national strategy that covers health, welfare, social services as well as housing. And the White Paper, concentrating on new supply, does not take account of the millions of people living in low quality, overcrowded or fuel poor housing.

The Housing White Paper, while claiming to fix the ‘broken housing market’, does nothing of the kind. Affordability will not be improved, social housing will continue to whither on the vine, and homelessness will spiral.

Tom Copley, Labour member of the London Assembly, representing the whole of London. He is City Hall Labour's Housing Spokesperson.

The government’s Housing White Paper has been awaited with much anticipation for over a month. Yet it has turned out to be an utter waste of paper.

The best thing that can be said about it is that it has limited impact on London. After the enormously damaging Housing & Planning Act was passed last year, that is at least an improvement. But it’s a shame that the government has failed to take the opportunity to make real improvements, in three areas in particular.

The first missed opportunity was on local authority building. Setting tough new targets for housebuilding is all very well, but what we really needed was for councils to be freed up to build at scale again by lifting the arbitrary cap on their borrowing for housing.

In the post-war period we have never built the homes we need at the scale we need since the public sector, traditionally in the form of local authorities, was forced out of the business of building homes. While a return to mass council house building will be difficult, local authorities must once again play a crucial role in housing delivery. The rest of the public sector must step up too. Transport for London is to start 10,000 homes on its land by 2020, of which half will be affordable.

The second missed opportunity comes with private tenancies. While I welcome the White Paper’s support for the build to rent sector, it is weak on the issue of security of tenure and affordability for private renters. The expectation that the build to rent sector should offer longer tenancies is welcome, but this will have no impact for the vast majority of private tenants who rent from buy to let landlords.

The re-announcement of a ban on lettings agency fees for tenants will be cheered by London’s ever growing number of private tenants, but the government must ensure that it is a blanket ban with no loopholes that can be exploited by greedy agents.

The third missed opportunity relates to affordability. The government intends to stick with so-called “Affordable Rent”, which in reality means up to 80% of market rents. It is disappointing that they did not choose to follow Sadiq Khan’s example and create an intermediate tenure linked to incomes, which the Mayor has done with the introduction of the London Living Rent.

London will receive a portion of £1.4 billion extra funding for affordable housing, in addition to the record £3.15 billion negotiated already by the Mayor. This is most welcome, and reflects the good working relationship that has formed between the Deputy Mayor for Housing, James Murray, and Housing Minister Gavin Barwell.

The White Paper is silent about the forced sale of council homes to fund Right to Buy discounts for housing association tenants, so that spectre still hangs over London. Having already jettisoned some of the worst elements of the Housing & Planning Act, it is just possible that this will never see the light of day. But if the government do decide to press on, its impact on London will be profoundly negative.

We are fortunate in London to have a Mayor who is putting in place measures that should accelerate the delivery of new homes, and in particular affordable homes, over the coming years. At least this White Paper won’t frustrate those efforts.

Seb Klier, London Campaigns Manager at Generation Rent, an organisation working for secure, decent and affordable homes in the private rented sector.

Having briefed over the weekend that their new housing white paper would address private renters’ concerns about affordability and security, the government created false hope that ended today with the realisation that we’d fallen for the spin, again.

Although much of the policy detail in the paper - around planning, construction, and development - still needs to be dissected and absorbed, it’s already clear that this paper will do little to produce longer tenancies and more affordable rents.

Rather than legislate to guarantee standards, the government plans to work with new build to rent developers to ‘offer’ longer tenancies, something that already happens and will do nothing for the 11 million private tenants in England living in existing privately rented stock.

Furthermore, the proposals for ‘affordable’ rents suggest that planning policy will encourage more sub-market private tenancies – typically at 80% of market rent – as a provision of affordable housing on new developments. Not only will this have minimal effect on the wider private rented sector (PRS), but it would be genuinely pernicious if it crowds out properly affordable social housing.

There is a place for the development of new affordable private rented stock, but that should be genuinely affordable (one third of net incomes), and should be built to accommodate the widest grouping of renters. This means homes for families and older people, rather than simply targeting high-income, young professionals, as is the norm in current build to rent schemes.

So how can the government properly improve things for private renters? The answers are simple and achievable if the political will is there: protect tenants from no-fault eviction so that they can stay in their homes indefinitely (or at least provide financial compensation if they are evicted); control private rents so they are affordable for people on regular incomes; and end the freeze on housing benefit.

And can we take anything positive away from today? The fact that government felt obliged to pitch its housing policy at the long-term and growing PRS population shows that they recognise there is a new social phenomenon at work in the country.

And perhaps when it sinks in that one third of PRS households contain dependent children, and that 4.3 million private tenants already live in poverty, the penny will drop that unlimited rent rises and potential evictions each year not only clash with a just society, but bear a heavy cost for the state.

Until then, renters need to continue to organise, and make their demands visible. We have made politicians acknowledge our existence. Now let’s make a better private rented sector inevitable.