Long after we’ve all forgotten about the stunt, the lozenge and the stage malfunction, let’s hope we remember Theresa May’s conference speech for setting a new course on the need for new social homes.
And quite right too. With the tragedy of Grenfell still all too fresh in our minds, and with millions of private renters struggling to keep their heads above water each month, this country is in desperate need of more good quality homes that people on low wages can afford.
We do have concerns that the meat beneath the speech doesn’t live up to its billing. But this commitment to build a new generation of council homes marks a big shift.
Comparing last week’s announcement to where the government was just two years ago is like night to day. Back then, funding for new social rent homes wasn’t on their radar at all, and plans to force councils to sell many remaining homes were being pushed through parliament.
Today, those policies are little more than bad memories. Instead, we have the promise of new powers and new money for councils to build new homes at social rents.
This may be more significant than just unpicking a few years’ harmful policy, though. Opposition parties have long talked a good game about council house building, but doing so in government is something that none have done seriously for more than 40 years. No Prime Minister has made it the lead announcement of a conference speech for even longer – since before party conference speeches were party conference speeches at all.
But speeches alone don’t build homes. To really make a difference to ordinary families, what we need is the detail that get foundations dug and cement poured. To do this at the scale needed, the government needs to do three things.
First, we need to see a commitment to rent levels that are low enough to be genuinely affordable to low-earning families. Theresa May has committed that the homes will be social rent “where the need is greatest”, but housing costs are unaffordable for people on low wages across much of the country. A commitment to build new low rent homes across the country is essential.
Second, we need many, many more social homes. The funding announced today is welcome but the reality is that with over 1.2m households on waiting lists already, this is only a fraction of the long-term investment required. It will need to be the start, rather than the end.
And third, we need to see councils being given new powers to get land into the system much more cheaply, so they can deliver better quality homes.
We should genuinely celebrate the possibility of a consensus on the new need for social rented homes. What’s needed now are the policy changes to justify its top billing.
Polly Neate is the chief executive of housing charity Shelter. This piece originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.
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