The government must invest in a radical social housing programme, says Shelter’s chief executive.
More than a quarter of a million people in England woke up homeless this morning. Some will have slept rough, some are in grim B&Bs, and others are in old office buildings that have been converted into human warehouses.
This is an emergency. It’s eating away at our society one family at a time. So what should the priority housing policy be? Certainly not a “big new idea” that’s simply a revamp of David Cameron’s failed Starter Homes initiative. The First Homes scheme is a comfort blanket only, providing nothing for the people at the sharp end of the national emergency that our housing crisis has become.
At a time when we desperately need properly affordable housing, policymakers are looking to give a lucky few a 30% discount on what are still going to be incredibly expensive homes.
And let’s be clear about who the lucky few are. It is not those facing a monthly struggle to afford their rent. Our analysis shows that in 96% of the country someone on an average salary could not afford to buy one of these new-build homes, even with 30% lopped off the market price, and certainly not the key workers that the government talks about, unless they are at manager level.
Let’s not forget, nearly two-thirds of private renters have no savings whatsoever: there’s no way they can afford a deposit.
For those earning above the average, or with a helpful inheritance – people already on the cusp of homeownership, in other words – this may get them over the line. There is nothing wrong with that, but it becomes a massive problem if it comes at the expense of the social homes that more than a million households are desperately waiting for.
And that’s the real problem with this idea. The government is not proposing to introduce First Homes as an additional form of housing supply. Instead, it plans to use the existing Section 106 system, the legislation that means developers are obliged to provide “affordable” homes as part of their new developments, such as shared ownership or social housing. First Homes would be delivered not as well as, but instead of, these.
Currently, this system delivers almost 60% of the precious few social homes that actually get built. A paltry 6,000 social homes were delivered last year. Social homes are already critically endangered. First Homes could make them extinct.
Overall, when you factor in Right to Buy sales, demolitions and conversations, there was a net loss of 17,000 social homes last year. If the government squeezes social housing out of Section 106, the situation will get more critical at a time when homelessness is rising.
It’s difficult to overstate how far this is the opposite of “levelling up”. Social homes for desperate families will be scrapped to help a fortunate few on to the housing ladder.
Let’s be clear: social housing and homes for first-time buyers don’t have to be either/or. This trade-off is wholly of the government’s making.
This doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In a little over a month the chancellor will stand up to deliver his budget. With the majority the government now enjoys, this is an opportunity to set out a bold new vision for the country – and to deliver it. At the heart of that vision needs to be a historic renewal of social housing.
If the government is truly serious about ending homelessness, it must invest in the social homes this country and our society desperately need. New thinking is needed. This is not it.