What lies ahead?

(This article by Colin Wiles first appeared in Inside Housing)

I’ll tell you what #ukhousing needs. It needs a dedicated team of people with high-powered binoculars who can scan the horizon for danger.

Looking back, did any one seriously anticipate RTB2, affordable rents, the bedroom tax? It’s not good enough that these proposals take us by surprise: we should have sound counter arguments in place the minute they appear,  or better still head them off at the pass so they don’t see the light of day.

Being caught by surprise suggests a profession that is not in control of its own destiny.

Except the high-powered binoculars don’t need to look forwards they need to look backwards, because all the evidence about what could happen in the future can be found in past reports from right-leaning think tanks and buried in sites like Conservative Home.

Almost two years ago I wrote a blog about a walk from King’s Cross to the NHF office in Red Lion Square, describing how 50 percent of the homes en-route were valuable social housing properties that had helped to create lively and mixed neighbourhoods. This was written in response to a Policy Exchange report proposing that such homes should be sold off in order to fund new ones in poorer areas. Now, with a few variations on the theme, it is about to appear in a new Housing Bill as a way of funding Right to Buy 2. Virtually every property on my walk would be sold off as soon as it becomes empty under these proposals.

Policy Exchange is one of the most influential of the right-leaning think tanks. Some of their ideas such as brownfield regeneration and office to residential are already in the pipeline. Going back through some of their past reports, here, in no particular order, are a few more housing and planning policies that could be coming over the horizon in the next year or so. I have linked to the relevant report in each case.

1. Further cuts in affordable housing investment and a continuing emphasis upon home ownership. Cuts are not explicit in PE reports, but their whole tenor is that social housing is part of the problem and creates dependency. “Why Social Housing is Failing” is a typical chapter heading. What’s more, the fact that so many housing providers are going down a more commercial route, and becoming less reliant upon grant, would suggest that this trend is set to continue. The example of L & Q is case in point. The arguments about the rising housing benefit bill appear to have little impact.

2. More support and funding for self builders. A Right to Build, in areas where councils fail to meet their housing targets with land sold in an auction process.

3. An emphasis upon building bungalows in order to encourage downsizing.

4. Pressure to demolish “monolithic” high-rise social housing estates and replace them with lower rise, but higher density mixed communities. This was set out in a joint report with Create Streets, but has also been pushed by Lord Adonis and the IPPR.

5. Encouragement of garden villages, as well as garden cities and new towns. “Over one million new homes could be built over the next decade if each of the 353 councils in England built just one garden village of 3,000 new houses”. Each local authority would be encouraged to set up a development corporation to plan for a new village within their area. In return, if targets were met, other developments opposed by local people would not be allowed to go to appeal.

6. “Freedom” for housing associations. An idea floated just last year in a report by Chris Walker that was sponsored by Genesis. Apparently, housing associations are being stifled by red tape and setting them free from most regulation, so that they set their own rents and choose their own tenants, would allow them to build 100,000  homes a year. I’m going to be debating this proposal at Manchester with Chris if you can make it. I wrote about it here.

7. A boost to house building to 300,000 homes a year in order to bring down house prices and rents by promoting garden cities and self build. This would be achieved by buying land at 150% of its existing use value and using land value uplifts to fund development. (This is something I would strongly support, obviously).

8. A watering down of housing targets for local planning authorities and a greater  emphasis upon neighbourhood plans and localism. How this can be reconciled with the last item is not clear! The Big Society might make a comeback too. 

So those are my predictions for the next 12 months. Whether they will all materialise we shall see, but let’s not forget that Alex Morton, who wrote many of these reports, is now an advisor on housing and planning in Number Ten. Whatever is coming over the horizon the challenges will be immense and there will need to be some serious soul searching and thought about the best way to respond. 

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