Do we have the gumption to deliver solutions to our housing problems?

Patrick Mooney, managing director at Mooney Thompson Consulting, looks at the major problems currently facing the Government.

In the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s latest party conference speech, which featured (yet) more promises to sort out ‘some housing issues’, I heard several housing directors express their exasperation at what they described as the Government’s incoherent approach to housing.

“They seem to understand that housing is important to all parts of the electorate, but they don’t seem able or willing to follow through with plans that might offend Daily Mail readers” was the gist of their complaints. And to an extent I can sympathise with what they said. In the last couple of years, the Government has done a number of really positive things in the housing sector. They have committed themselves to fixing our broken housing market, the Housing White Paper contains many good proposals, Ministers appear determined to sort out rogue landlords and lettings agencies. And most recently the Prime Minister committed another £2 billion to the building of affordable homes – at least some of them will be council homes to be let on social rents. And yet there is a growing sense of frustration and irritation in housing managers, directors and leaders of councils and housing associations. They seem to think that for every forward step we take, we also take at least two, and sometimes three, steps backward.

While it’s true that Brexit is a hugely difficult and important problem to sort out, the country also needs a strong focus placed on sorting out its housing issues. I asked some colleagues and clients what they saw as the major problems facing the Government. Sadly it turned into quite a lengthy list:

1. The vast majority of the new money spent on housing is going into just one area – supporting owner occupation, with schemes like the Help To Buy, which has helped tens of thousands of first time buyers into home ownership, but at the same time has pushed up house prices across the board. It has also increased personal debt and taken resources away from other work programmes.

2. The extra £2bn is very welcome but it’s a drop in the ocean and will only lead to an extra 15,000 to 25,000 new affordable and social homes, although it attracted lots of positive newspaper headlines. Local authorities need access to loans and right to buy receipts, if they are to build new homes in the serious numbers that are required.

3. Ministers should actively promote new modular or factory built housing with a 10-year growth plan and a strategy for providing the skilled labour to build them.

4. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement to deliver new housing for NHS staff on spare land owned by health trusts is very welcome, but what about all of the other key public service workers like teachers, the police, social workers, transport staff, etc, who are also facing difficulties in affording homes near to where they work?

5. We’ve been promised a new Green Paper on the purpose of social housing while the recent White Paper to fix the broken housing market still has to be enacted and implemented. This feels like kicking the can down the road!

6. Housing and welfare policies are not being co-ordinated so much of the burden to support the most vulnerable in society appears to be shifting from the state, to local government and charities, who are still suffering from eight to nine years of austerity cuts.

7. The national rollout of Universal Credit resembles a car crash, with even the Government’s own backbenchers asking for it to be paused, so that a review can be undertaken into how it is (or isn’t) working. At the same time a Select Committee is suggesting that officials at the DWP are hiding incriminating data from Ministers and the Select Committee.

8. Homelessness is increasing with more and more families being placed in temporary accommodation. The new Homelessness Reduction Act puts extra responsibilities on councils to proactively support those threatened with losing their homes, while nothing is being done to tackle the main causes of this recent surge. Namely the increase in evictions, often from the private rented sector, and mainly caused by cuts in welfare benefit payments.

9. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in June, Ministers promised that safety works would be carried out to high rise blocks of flats but they are refusing to fund works such as the retrofitting of sprinklers, despite senior fire officers recommending these works as essential.

10. Promises made to rehouse families made homeless by the fire also appear to be at breaking point, with only a few tenants saying they have been made acceptable offers. Meanwhile the burnt out tower appears to stand as a reminder of the failed policies that got us into this position.

The list goes on and on, but my final contributor posed a question asking me what happened to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s promise to take on the big housebuilders and force them to use their land banks or to pass these to small, local housebuilders? Apparently even this has now been turned into a stick to bash the local planners with. It seems the Government knows where much of the responsibility lies, but it’s too easily distracted and it soon follows the path of least resistance.