A new vision for affordable housing is desperately needed

By Joe Shalam, Policy Director, The Centre for Social Justice

A new vision for affordable housing is desperately needed

29th November 2021

It has become hackneyed to describe the state of housing in England as a ‘crisis’. For many, the phrase has come to be synonymous with the growing chasm between the average wage and the price of a home.

Yet the plight of those struggling to get on the housing ladder, serious though this is for our society and economy, reflects merely one dimension of the housing crisis in England.

Indeed, while this aspect has received considerable attention from both politicians and the media, there is another – darker – side to the story.

That is, the rise of expensive, insecure and poor-quality housing for families with far less to begin with.

As we show in this report, ‘The Hidden Housing Crisis Exposed‘, the collapse in the supply of decent, affordable homes for people living on modest to low incomes has not just made homeownership even less attainable.

It has made it harder to start and maintain healthy families, to thrive in work, and to provide an educational foundation for children.

The Government has published plans to increase the delivery of homes (primarily to buy) through reforms to the planning system.

It has allocated a welcome £11.5 billion for new affordable housing until 2026, building on measures introduced to increase the supply of homes for social rent, such as the recent removal of borrowing restrictions on council housebuilding.

Yet the supply of truly affordable homes for rent still falls well short of what was delivered historically to meet the needs of the population living in inadequate housing and for whom buying remains a distant dream.

Reversing the decline in good quality and truly affordable housebuilding, while addressing the drivers of demand, is desperately needed to improve the health of the nation and its finances – putting thousands more lower earners on a realistic path to home ownership.

Indeed, the fiscal consequences of this hidden crisis are just as stark, as housing benefit spending has risen dramatically to account for systemic changes in the way our nation is housed. As governments of all stripes have become more reliant on the ballooning private rented sector to house lower earners, expenditure on housing benefits is forecast to be £30.3 billion by 2021–22 – more than double the total government grant allocated for new affordable housing until 2026, in just one year.

In 2020–21 the CSJ partnered with Stack Data Strategy to carry out a nationally representative poll to look at attitudes to this issue.

This exercise revealed that the New Conservative segment – whose votes underpinned Boris Johnson’s electoral majority in 2019 and are expected to be a key determinant of the next election – is highly supportive of government intervention in low-cost rented housebuilding. Two-thirds of New Conservative voters (67 per cent) said that social housing should be made a government priority, over twice as many as the Shire Tory segment who have constituted the traditional Conservative vote.

In short, our research suggests that there is no simple left-right divide in England on what is known today as ‘social housing’, following the seismic realignments in political affiliation seen in recent years. This presents a major opportunity for the Government to reset the agenda on truly affordable housing and address the social, economic and fiscal problems associated with the hidden housing crisis – with considerable public support.

Given the scale of disillusionment over current ‘affordable housing’ policy also revealed in the polling, we recommend the Government initiates a process of rapid evidence gathering to reshape social and affordable housing policy in the 2020s, with the publication of the Levelling Up white paper.

In the next report in this series, the CSJ will publish a raft of policy proposals which we hope the Government will consider in this initiative and in its efforts to build back better.

By Joe Shalam, Policy Director, The Centre for Social Justice

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