Town and Country Planning Association’s Kate Henderson argues that the government must not let Brexit distract it from tackling the housing crisis
Brexit negotiations will be the top priority of the new government. However, it is essential that the government also focus on the issues that matter to people’s quality of life, starting with the housing crisis.
Research by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) highlights that the housing crisis affects communities across the UK, with 98% of councils describing their need for affordable housing as severe or moderate.
At the time of writing this article, the new government’s priorities for housing are not yet known. What we do know is that Theresa May remains Prime Minister, and Gavin Barwell, the former Housing Minister, is now her Chief of Staff. Given that these two figures – May and Barwell – were the chief architects of the housing White Paper published in February, it seems likely that the government will progress with the housing and planning policies set out in this strategy.
The recent housing White Paper rightly recognises the complexity of our housing crisis, but it does not deal with the fundamentals that must be addressed if we are to offer real hope of high-quality, affordable homes to buy and social homes for rent. Homelessness charity Shelter found that 83% of private renters are unable to buy a new-build home, even with Help to Buy.
The new TCPA and APSE report, “Building homes, creating communities”, makes a case for the government to invest in building new homes available for social rent to house essential low-paid workers – whose employment underpins an economy on which we all depend. Investment in new social-rented homes is in addition to the need for continued government support for low-cost home-ownership, the rented sector and a range of affordable housing products.
Local authority innovation
The report also showcases the ambition and innovation currently found in local authorities, and by exploring a range of issues faced by councils, it identifies how local authorities can take a more active role in housing delivery through entrepreneurial approaches to setting up local housing companies and innovative approaches to partnership working. Just over half (51%) of the councils surveyed for the study said that they were considering setting up or have already established a local housing delivery company, and a further 18% were setting up joint ventures.
The recent expansion of innovative local council delivery vehicles has been a positive development in the diversification of housing delivery. The core incentive in forming many of these companies and joint ventures has been to use local authority assets to develop housing schemes which could meet an urgent social housing need. However, the housing White Paper implies that Right to Buy rules will apply to local authority housing companies that are delivering social-rented homes. Since this housing can no longer be secured over the long term, one of the core incentives for recent innovative initiatives has been removed.
The central government imposition of the Right to Buy in this new sector is counterproductive in the overall drive for affordable housing delivery. To ensure that local government innovation flourishes, resulting in more homes of all tenures, the report calls on the government to make clear that Right to Buy rules do not apply to local authority housing companies.
Brexit dominated the political debate in the build-up to the general election, and it is guaranteed to be the primary focus of parliament for the foreseeable future.
Brexit has generated uncertainty for councils, the wider housing and planning sector, and the national economy. In response to the survey question ‘What do you think will be the impact of Brexit on your local authority’s ability to meet housing need in the short term (within the next five years)?’, only 3% of the 157 councils that responded thought it would have a positive impact and that they would be able to build more homes.
One of the biggest concerns about Brexit revealed by the TCPA and APSE research is the shortage of construction skills. The government needs to support the expansion of the construction industry, recognising the current capacity constraints on delivery due to factors such as the limited availability of skilled and unskilled workers, equipment and raw materials. Councils can also play an important role in expanding the construction skills sector through apprenticeships to ensure that the sector is not overly reliant on migrant workers from Europe or further afield.
Most importantly, the government must not let Brexit distract it from tackling the housing crisis in the UK. Theresa May has powerfully set out the scale of the housing crisis: ‘Our broken housing market is one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain today. Whether buying or renting, the fact is that housing is increasingly unaffordable – particularly for ordinary working class people who are struggling to get by.’
We urge the new government to hit the ground running on the real priorities for the country, answering the fundamental question: Where are we going to live? In answering this question, the government must match an ambition to increase housing numbers with a commitment to specific measures which ensure that there are high-quality outcomes, including socially mixed communities, good design and decent space standards.
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Town and Country Planning Association
Tel: 020 7930 8903.