I have a problem – one which falls under the heading of “good problems to have”, but it’s a problem, nonetheless.
It’s this. Much of my approach to writing about housing policy over the last half decade or so has involved a combination of simmering rage and snark. It’s thus difficult for me to find the right register with which to communicate the fact the speech on social housing that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave earlier was genuinely, to my mind, good.
The policies the party just proposed will cost money – but doesn’t everything, and it doesn’t look like crazy money. And on an initial reading, at least, this looks like exactly the sort of package of radical housing policy reform I’ve been demanding for the last five years. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?
I did say it was a good problem to have.
Here’s a brief rundown of the headline proposals, with my thoughts. Let’s start with the big one.
One million new “genuinely affordable homes” over a decade, mostly for social rent
That’s not quite 1m new council houses – a chunk of these would be delivered by housing associations – but it gets very close.
Building an average of 100,000 new social homes a year would be a huge shift from where we are now. The last time this country did anything comparable was the late 1970s. In the first example of a pattern you should get used to, Labour wants to turn the clock back to before the Thatcher government.
If you believe the housing crisis is in large part one of supply, then it’s hard to disagree with the goal here. Most analysts reckon this country should be building upwards of 250,000 new homes a year: the only time that has ever happened was during the post-war period when the state was doing much of the building itself.
That said, there are all sorts of reasons to worry that it might be difficult to get from here to there. Off the top of my head: shortage of land, shortage of workers, shortage of bricks.
But Labour does at least have a strategy for dealing with one of the big ones – shortage of money – which is…
Allowing councils to borrow to build
Talk about British local government to someone from almost any other country (I have done this; don’t judge me), and one of the things they will be most baffled by is the lack of autonomy our councils have to run their own affairs. The difficulty they have in borrowing to invest in the needs of their communities is a huge part of this.
And there is logic in letting councils borrow to build homes. New council housing means new assets and new revenue streams: the development should at least partly be able to fund itself. What’s more, tackling the housing crisis locally will also reduce demands for all sorts of other social services, which tend to fall on councils. Bring housing costs down, and you cut the national housing benefit bill, too.
It does mean pushing back against the core logic of austerity, that public debt is always and everywhere a problem. But that may be no bad thing in itself. And such a policy may win some surprising allies: even a few on the right have started to talk about the need to get councils building again.
Ending Right to Buy
This one seems less likely to win support on the right: cut-price home sales to council tenants remains a Tory shibboleth, even though it’s a drain on the public finances.
Scrapping it, though, is almost certainly a good thing. It’ll help shore up council revenues, and increase their incentives to build. What’s more, a depressingly high proportion of Right to Buy homes end up in the hands of private landlords. That feels pretty indefensible in the current climate.
Guarantees that any council tenant whose estate is redeveloped will be offered a replacement on the same site to prevent social cleansing
This will likely cost money: anything which ties councils’ hands when redeveloping an estate will.
But there are pragmatic reasons for doing it, as well as, y’know, moral ones. One of the main barriers to redeveloping council estate is opposition, stemming in large part from the fact that in past redevelopments existing tenants have often been utterly screwed. Bring the current residents along with you, and redevelopment will get a whole lot easier.
A new definition of “affordable housing” linked to incomes, rather than average rents
This one is a particularly fine idea. Under the current rules, an “affordable home” is one which costs no more than 80 per cent of market rents.
The result of this is that, in more expensive areas, like inner London, 80 per cent of the market rent for a family home is not in any rational universe “affordable”. More to the point, it makes “affordability” a moving target: as rents increase, so do affordable ones. Linking affordable rents to incomes, then, seems a vastly more sensible way of doing things.
Corbyn also promised to close the loopholes around the “viability assessments”, which commercial developers use to get out of affordable housing commitments; to give councils new powers to acquire land, which sounds a lot like stronger compulsory purchase rules; and to create a new government department focusing entirely on housing, which should help to focus minds.
But I’ve been going on quite long enough already. At a first glance, I’m not sure how easy it will be to deliver on all of these policies in one go. And there are gaps: there’s no mention of green belt reform, for example, and it’s not clear to me that some cities will have the space for large numbers of new homes without it.
On the whole, though, all this looks rather good.
I’m not sure how to end an article that comes to such a positive conclusion.
Soooo… Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?
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Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.
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