BARRATT HOLMES, our housing correspondent, on the missed opportunity of the housing Green Paper, published yesterday
The housing Green Paper, published yesterday, had been promised for some considerable time. They were even working on a government housing strategy document when Gavin Barwell was the latest in a succession of short-stay Tory housing ministers. And whatever happened to him?
One housing policy dreamt up when Barwell was in government, to compel local councils and housing associations to sell their most valuable properties, has finally been abandoned, seen for the pernicious, counter-productive nonsense that it was.
But otherwise? The Green Paper was promised by Sajid Javid (when it was his turn to be housing minister for a few weeks) to be “a landmark opportunity” to re-calibrate the country’s housing market. But community campaigners, economists and opposition Labour politicians reacted to its long-awaited content with a collective sigh of disappointment and disbelief.
On the management of existing social housing stock, it is, one said, “a statement of the bleedin’ obvious”.
On promises to build more homes, it is “just proposals about proposals”.
“They’ve over-egged the rhetoric,” was the view of one underwhelmed economist.
Asked for his reaction to the Green Paper, David Orr, of the National Housing Federation, said, “Truthfully? Apart from some warm words and encouragement, there is nothing tangible in the Green Paper that tackles the shortage of good-quality, affordable homes for people on low incomes.
“There is not enough social housing in the economy and this Green Paper doesn’t tackle that fundamental challenge.”
The simple fact is that there are now 1million fewer council homes in this country than there were 40 years ago – when the Tories first started their bargain-basement sale of public property with the Thatcherite Right-to-Buy policy.
Now, just to meet demand, the government needs to build at least 60,000 homes for social rent each year. But the Tories have actually been building fewer than 6,000 a year, intensifying the crisis.
Tens of thousands of homeless families are left in temporary accommodation each year as a result. This is predicted to soar to 100,000 within two years.
In Croydon, the council had more than 1,000 families in temporary accommodation in 2016.
The Tories, who locally did much to oppose the Labour-run council’s introduction of a landlord licensing scheme in Croydon, are now proposing, through the Green Paper, to give tenants more powers to deal with rogue landlords.
While charities the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Shelter said they approved of measures to tackle stigma and empower social housing tenants, they said the new policies would not work unless the government invests in building more social housing.
Shelter said the paper was “full of warm words but doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed”.
The JRF added: “The government promised a top-to-bottom review of social housing, however today’s Green Paper does little to address the fundamental lack of low-cost rented homes in England.”
Or as Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy put it: “The government has already announced this week a homelessness strategy and a social housing Green Paper with no new money for homelessness or social housing.”
And the government has missed massive economic opportunity. Until last month, interest rates had been at a historic low for a decade. Yet the Tory-led governments of David Cameron and Theresa May have done nothing to remove restrictions on local authorities to borrow – at uber-low interest rates – to build. And the Green Paper failed to address this issue, too.
“You have got to allow councils to borrow to build,” Joe Beswick, of the New Economics Foundation, said.
“Councils can borrow to buy supermarkets, which some of them have done. But they’re not allowed to borrow to build social homes.”
And as Beswick also highlighted, building publicly owned housing, using significant amounts of capital up-front, is usually at worst cost-neutral to local authorities, and over the longer term can actually generate revenue, since having housing stock for social rent reduces the cost of providing housing benefits, and provides a rental income.
Meanwhile, the government did confirmed it will not go ahead with the “higher-value asset levy” it announced in 2015, which would have required councils to make an annual payment to government, to be recouped through the sale of higher-value homes as they become vacant.
The intention was to use the funds to meet the £4billion cost of extending Right to Buy discounts to housing association tenants.
As Inside Housing put it yesterday, “It is not clear how the government intends to fund this policy, or indeed if it intends to go ahead with it, now that the policy has been dropped.”
In a statement ahead of the publication of the Green Paper, the government said: “The paper outlines plans to build on the new borrowing capacity granted to local authorities by exploring new flexibilities on how they spend the money from homes sold under the Right to Buy scheme, and not requiring them to sell off vacant, higher-value stock.”
The higher-value asset levy was deeply unpopular with councils, which warned it would rob them of their best homes and prevent them building new ones. The government had previously announced the policy would not come into force in 2018-2019 – but had not formally scrapped it.
Of the other ho-hum proposals in the Green Paper, there are to be league tables of housing providers (whoopee!), dogma-heavy schemes to allow tenants to buy 1 per cent of their home each year through shared ownership (this would only apply to new shared ownership purchases), and the ditching of plans to force social landlords to offer fixed term tenancies rather than lifetime tenancies in social housing.
But actual new homes? Nada.
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