The new Housing Bill is even worse than expected
To understand the Housing and Planning Bill you need to realise that the government has been allowed to steal the housing agenda and its vocabulary. The Bill itself does not go into a lot of detail and raises more questions than answers, questions that are vital to the future of social housing and its tenants. One thing that is clear from the Bill and the statements that accompany it is that the government will continue to attack social housing as it delivers its home ownership crusade.
This is revealed most clearly in the section relating to Starter Homes. In future, local authorities will be required to facilitate the building of Starter Homes at the expense of social or ’affordable’ housing through planning agreements and other measures. Starter Homes will be redefined as ’affordable’, even though- like most forms of ’affordable’ housing- they are priced beyond the reach of the majority of the population. At a stroke one of the most common routes for developing social homes to rent will be lost and replaced by unaffordable homes to buy.
The home ownership theme continues under the section on the ‘voluntary’ Right to Buy. This recognises the infamous deal between housing associations and the government. Unless this is changed in discussion, I am sure that many housing associations will begin to realise that they have been miss-sold and miss-led. The deal is not voluntary as it will be enforced by the housing regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). There is no guarantee that funding will be available to replace homes that are sold to existing tenants and even if funds are made available, it will be in the form of a grant with strings attached. This means that the government can dictate the tenure to be built. Even if housing associations wanted to replace social rent homes that are sold under the scheme on a like for like basis, they will not be allowed to do so. Given the government’s agenda they will still insist that more homes to buy will be built.
These homes will be funded by stock-owning local authorities who will be required to make a payment which “represent(s) an estimate of the market value of the authority’s interest in any high value housing that is likely to become vacant during the year”. This almost certainly means that stock-owning local authorities will be required to sell vacant stock to pay for the ‘voluntary’ Right to Buy scheme. The outcome will be that more council housing will be sold to fund housing associations to replace social housing sold under the ‘voluntary’ deal. The slow death of social housing will continue with those on low incomes no longer able to access an ever-decreasing supply of homes at a rent that is truly affordable.
The number of housing association tenants who will exercise their right to buy is not known. But there is a ‘nudge factor’ in the Bill under the section on Pay to Stay. Tenants earning over a certain amount will have their rent increased to market rents. As these are often more than the cost of a mortgage the government’s intention is clear, to encourage more people to buy. This section has important human rights implications as the HMRC will be required to share information with housing association landlords. It will be interesting to see how Parliament reacts to this attack on individual privacy.
Most housing associations will claim that they signed up to the voluntary deal to avoid falling under the government’s control through the reclassification of their status by the ONS. But it is almost impossible to read the Bill without thinking that housing associations are being set up to do more on the government’s behalf, not less. The government offered a carrot, in the form of further deregulation, to encourage housing associations to sign the voluntary deal. This is mentioned in one sentence in the Bill, but it has far reaching consequences. The only thing that will stop the government is the traditional values of housing associations. The next few months will test how strong these values really are and whether housing associations are willing to resist the government and its ideological agenda.