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Time for housing to come home to councils

A new report, by the UK’s largest public sector union UNISON, has called for councils to be placed at the heart of a new homes revolution to address the deepening UK housing crisis.

Speaking about the report Christina McAnea, UNISON’s General Secretary said “The health pandemic has further exposed the inequalities in access to decent affordable homes. Is it too much to ask that the workers who carried our economy through the past year should be able to afford a decent place to live?

The report ‘A decent place to live: Homes fit for Key Workers’ finds that the decline in funding for council housing is matched by a decline in the numbers of new homes being built. Estimates suggests that developer led markets will not meet the 340,000 new homes needed in each of the next ten years, in England, to address the housing crisis. To get anywhere near achieving this target at least 100,000 new homes, for social renters, would need to be built to contribute to that figure.

However, the report finds, that the role of local councils in directly providing new homes has been systematically undermined for decades, leaving housing supply to a failing market system. The lack of supply and the interface with land values has a direct impact on the numbers of affordable homes available for workers to rent or buy. At the same time planning regulations have weakened the ability to enforce both housing standards, and the volume of affordable homes, on new developments. This has exacerbated the crisis not only in housing supply but in housing quality. 

Ms McAnea added “The developer led market is failing generations of workers unable to access a decent home. What’s more the longer this housing crisis is allowed to continue the bigger the gap in meeting the needs for homes to rent or buy at affordable levels.

“This leaves governments across the UK with a stark choice. Either allow the worsening of the housing crisis or giving local councils a central role in building new affordable homes. We need to grasp the opportunity for councils to develop new green homes, leveraging desperately needed jobs, skills and opportunities to shape local places as part our green recovery. The time for action is now.”

The report is critical of previous interventions by governments over a number of decades for using small scale ‘sticking plaster’ interventions in addressing housing affordability or novel schemes to discount key worker housing. Such schemes it argues has systematically failed to bring about the new homes needed or to address the crisis in affordability. The report finds that only by drastic and direct financial investment in building new homes through councils, and other non-profit providers will need be met, allowing workers to access affordable home.

Report recommendations

1. Investment in a new generation of council housing, at scale, has to be at the heart of solving the crisis in affordable homes to rent.

This will mean leveraging capital investment levels last seen in the post-war years alongside a delivery strategy that pulls together the materials, supplies, land and skills needed to get homes built at the scale needed across the UK. The barriers and bureaucracy associated with Housing Revenue Accounts (HRA), and the lack of an HRA in around a third of English councils must be addressed to remove any barriers to delivering new council homes. Government subsidy for new build council housing in Scotland must be raised to match that for Registered Social Landlords (RSL) new build.

2. The new generation of council housing must maximise the opportunities for green growth and green construction skills

Responding to the housing crisis must also address the climate crisis. The new generation of council homes should therefore maximise the opportunities for local councils to develop and grow their local workforce; developing green apprenticeships, recruiting local workers into new fields of green construction, and skilling the workers of the future to meet the challenges of climate change. From new skills in green home-energy to securing green skills in local environmental services this approach secures the jobs and skills needed now and in a low-carbon future. This approach must be centred upon local councils as anchor institutions, nurturing sustainable growth and the wellbeing of residents at a community level, as opposed to extractive market-based economic models.

3. New homes must be ‘Healthy Homes’ and for this reason adoption of the Healthy Homes Act should be a priority

The Healthy Homes Act advocated by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) offers a powerful way for national governments and local councils to promote and secure good place-making. Enshrined in law, healthy homes principles would protect communities from poor quality housing, securing such simple but often ignored design principles of access to light, public realm, and quality and space standards.

Whilst in Scotland emerging legislation will support improvements within housing standards, such an Act in other UK administrations, would place a new duty on the Secretary of State or relevant Minister in a devolved administration to secure ‘the health, safety, wellbeing and convenience of people in or around new buildings, and on local authorities to plan for the long-term delivery of affordable housing’.

4. Re-empower councils with meaningful control of planning and place-making outcomes

Deregulation of planning and austerity has left councils feeling powerless to act in creating safe and strong, healthy and wealthy sustainable local communities – this must be reversed.

The ongoing use of Permitted Development Rights runs the risk of creating the slums of tomorrow. Poor quality housing developments, including changes of use which undermine the very concepts of communities, should have no place in modern housing development. Meaningful re-empowerment of councils, in planning controls and rebuilding council planning departments, must be at the heart of any plans to ‘build back better’

5. A wider exploration, and expansion of Living Rents pilots should be considered, giving immediate support to those living in housing poverty

Whilst Living Rents are not the only solution to housing affordability, better linking earnings and rent paid, would lift thousands out of rent poverty. This concept should be explored, tested and expanded. It will not substitute for building a new generation of council housing but would be a pragmatic support to those living now in poverty as a result of the cost of housing.

6. Welfare reforms have fundamentally damaged the link between household income and housing affordability. The link between Local Housing Allowance, housing benefit and rents should be restored to provide immediate relief to those facing an acute crisis of housing affordability.

Whilst Government injected some emergency cash into Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and Universal Credit payments during the health pandemic, the LHA is not fit for purpose as it does not meet the true costs of rent. This places renters in a poverty trap, forced to either top up rents from meagre benefits or low pay or stopping people from finding a home to rent altogether.

A long-term restoration of the link between LHA, housing benefit and rents would provide relief to those facing hardship, beyond the current health crisis. This will also support local councils who face avoidable demands on homelessness services, and other services, because of the inadequacies of the current levels of LHA, housing benefits and unaffordable rents.

7. Right to Buy in England should be subject to local moratoriums

Abolition of right to buy in Scotland Wales has led to enabled public authorities to better meet local housing need. English councils should be able to apply their own moratorium on Right to Buy sales, with full flexibility and autonomy to make decisions in the interests of their communities. The existing cycle of investment and enforced sales is ultimately harmful to the delivery of new homes. Local councils have the expertise and local knowledge to know best what delivers for their communities. They should be trusted to decide.    

You can download the report here 


Promoting excellence in public services

APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) is a not for profit unincorporated association working with over 300 councils throughout the UK. Promoting excellence in public services, APSE is the foremost specialist in local authority frontline services, hosting a network for frontline service providers in areas such as waste and refuse collection, parks and environmental services, cemeteries and crematorium, environmental health, leisure, school meals, cleaning, housing and building maintenance.






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