At this year’s Conservative party conference, the new housing secretary did not disguise his priorities. “We are on the side of hard-working people who want the sense of security that comes with home ownership,” said Robert Jenrick as he set out plans to give housing association tenants the right to purchase a share in the equity of their property.
But what about those of us who expect to rent for the foreseeable future? As both a renter and CEO of a housing association I recognise both the benefits and the risks associated with this type of tenure.
For many people, renting is a positive lifestyle choice offering greater flexibility, lower costs and less stress than home ownership. For many others, renting is the only option currently available to them and the outlook can be bleak. Too many people get a poor level of service from their landlord. Renters are too often stuck with precarious tenancies and face the prospect of having to pay considerable costs when they are forced to move out.
And yet, more and more people of all ages are renting in towns and cities across the UK. With renting increasingly becoming the new normal, more has to be done to make it an attractive offer with positive benefits, rather than a last ditch resort that people have to put up with while hoping not to get ripped off or exploited.
To get real change and better housing options for renters, policy-makers need to think outside of the box and explore all avenues to deliver the quality affordable homes we need. In many sectors of the UK economy, politicians have been long been keen to encourage innovation and new ways of thinking. Housing should not be an exception, and yet radical policy solutions in the sector have often failed to get traction or have been put on the backburner.
Housing associations could play a far greater role in delivering affordable housing, but to make it happen we also need to be pro-active and embrace new ways of thinking. That’s why for some time I have been looking into setting up a new government-backed fund, through which pension schemes would be able to invest directly in affordable housing construction.
Of course, such a fund would require government cash at the outset. Research done for us by a former government economist has found a £2bn seed loan would kick-start affordable development on a mass scale. The fund could be operational within two years and capable of financing the delivery of 30,000 affordable homes each year.
It would be run by the housing association sector and it would encourage the use of modern methods of construction in order to quickly mass produce new homes – imagine affordable homes being built at scale and speed, churned out by factories in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
Pension providers have told me they can see potential in the model. They recognise that affordable housing could provide pension schemes with a reliable, socially responsible, long-term investment option.
Having considered this concept for some time, my sense is that policymakers are also becoming increasingly interested. Earlier this year, the Labour party green paper Housing for the Many made it clear that the policy is under consideration and I have had constructive discussions with politicians from other parties too.
With a general election around the corner, I hope to hear more in the weeks and months to come. As things stand, we are nowhere near tackling the UK-wide shortfall and we clearly cannot we rely on the big developers who currently dominate the market. Perhaps the biggest scandal in housing today is the prominent position being taken up by volume builders who lack both the capacity and motivation to increase the number of affordable homes they deliver.
As a housing association boss, it might not come as a huge surprise to learn that I firmly believe housing associations are best placed to deliver the affordable that many renters are crying out for. We build quality, affordable rental and purchase homes and we help to shape the communities around them. Tenants are at the absolute heart of our vision.
However it is not enough to cross our fingers and hope that politicians put their faith in us. Instead we have to be bold and seize the initiative. With detailed proposals for a radical new pensions-backed affordable housing fund, I have done exactly that. Politicians should do the same.
Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.
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