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How Far Will the Manifesto Housing Pledges Go to Help Those in Poverty?

03/05/2015 21:44 BST | Updated 03/05/2016 10:12 BST

From the Conservative pledge to introduce the Right to Buy for housing association tenants, to Labour's pledges to cut stamp duty and cap private rents, housing policy has become a defining issue of this election. But what impact will any of these policies have on people living in poverty in the UK?

The aim of housing policy should be to provide a decent quality home at a price that can be afforded, with sufficient choice over property size and tenure to meet the increasing diversity of household circumstances. You might call it the '3 As': adequacy, access and affordability. This is something on which all the political parties broadly agree. But they differ sharply on how you would achieve these aims.

It is widely accepted, too, that housing supply has not kept pace with growing demand. From their different political outlooks, all parties look to address this - ranging from the removal of planning restrictions to encourage private development through to a dramatic increase in the supply of social housing.

But the drivers behind the parties' various housing proposals rarely start with a concern for the people who suffer most from the current housing shortage. Very few proposals in the manifestos take these people's needs as the starting point.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for any housing programme is how to match a relatively inflexible form of supply - a built dwelling - to the rapidly changing trends in household, resources and preferences. The party manifestos all fail to respond adequately to this challenge.

The main parties, especially the Conservatives, are mesmerised by the fate of the thwarted first time buyer. The Conservatives have brought forth a raft of proposed measures: a Help to Buy programme, a starter homes programme, a rent to buy programme, a new Help to Buy ISA and above all the extension of the Right to Buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants.This is an obvious attempt to recreate the political dividend of the original 'Right to Buy' offer to council tenants. But housing circumstances have changed in the past thirty five years and the impact of the policy on those living in housing poverty will be non-existent.

Entry into home ownership - even nurtured by large discounts - is seen as a more hazardous option than it was, and those long-standing housing association tenants who might stand to gain most are less likely to be in work, and therefore able to afford it, than many council tenants in the 1980s.

Perhaps most importantly, the above measures are likely to do little to increase overall housing supply. Speculative developers may not necessarily build more, but simply swap unsubsidised housing schemes for subsidised schemes. Private developers, concerned solely with making the first sale, will often play safe in terms of the envisaged purchaser - hence the preference to build for the first time buyer or those who are trading up. In this process, more diverse needs may be neglected. This includes single people of all ages, those on low incomes who can barely afford to rent, let alone buy, and marginal and vulnerable groups who have been hit by low wages, public spending cuts and consolidated welfare reform measures, affecting their access to, and the level of, their benefits.

Across all the manifestos, it is especially notable that so little is said about the need for a regionally differentiated housing programme, given the growing differentiation between local housing markets. In London, spiralling housing costs in all sectors overshadow all other concerns. These affordability pressures for poorer households have been intensified as a result of the various welfare reform measures introduced since 2010. However, in other parts of the country, there are more pressing issues: such as the poor standard of private rented properties at the lower end of the market, and the need to revive local regeneration programmes abandoned since 2010. These issues are generally overlooked in the main parties' manifestos.

Compared to the Conservative offer, the Labour Party has a more balanced programme of new build between renting and buying. The Labour Party, UKIP and Greens are all committed to abolishing the Bedroom Tax, which is widely seen as inequitable, while producing relatively small savings in expenditure. However the need to respond to the reductions in Housing Benefit in the private rented sector, which amount to six times the reductions caused by the Bedroom Tax, only gets a mention from the Greens.

One under-used resource in the housing system is homes of more affluent older owner occupiers, under-occupying to a far greater extent than those council tenants who were the focus of the Bedroom Tax. There is silence in all manifestos on how some of these assets might be unlocked through imaginative equity release schemes, for other generations and household types.

Other issues that could affect the functioning and affordability of the housing market for people living in poverty also do not make it in to the parties' manifestos - such as land taxation, suggested by the Liberal Democrats in 2013, but now dropped.

The most far-sighted and radical proposals for housing are advocated by the Greens, who address at least some of the long standing structural peculiarities of the British housing market: the over-emphasis on owner-occupation, the serious lack of investment in social housing, an inefficient, expensive and ill targeted housing benefit regime, and an unduly permissive regime for the private rented sector.

But overall, the parties have some way to go to find imaginative and creative solutions to one of the greatest challenges for the next government, and the poorest people in the UK will suffer most as a result.