Despite our country being gripped by a housing emergency, the few housing announcements at this week’s Conservative Party Conference are lacklustre at best and will do nothing to help struggling renters. In Wednesday’s closing speech by the prime minister, all housing got was a couple of throw away comments. Yet there were many Conservatives away from the conference spotlight who understand all too well that real change is needed right now, and their numbers are growing.
We had hoped the new government might continue or even – given its promise of boldness – build upon the revival of social housing that Theresa May started in 2017, when she used her conference speech to announce the first funding for new social rent homes since 2010. Or when she sent shockwaves through the housing sector in 2018 by scrapping the council borrowing cap to allow them to build more affordable homes. But it looks like this progress has well and truly stalled.
Earlier in the week, housing minister Esther McVey said “we need to be building more of all kinds of houses – council, social and private”, but we have heard nothing about how the government intends to turn this ambition into reality. Homelessness can’t be solved without homes, and homes can’t be built without a well-funded plan.
If we’re looking for answers on housing, then Robert Jenrick – the new secretary of state for housing – should be the person to start with. But for now, at least, it seems his focus is firmly on so-called “low-cost homeownership” options like shared ownership. He used his speech to extend the offer of shared ownership to all new housing association tenants, even though 83% of people living in social housing have no savings at all. Which begs the question, how will these renters afford the shares in the first place, however small or subsidised?
We’ve run the figures, and even if tenants could somehow pull together a deposit and fees, once you take into account mortgage costs, rent and service charges, the scheme is still unaffordable for almost 75% of social housing tenants across England. This rises to a massive 94% in London, where the housing crisis is arguably squeezing people the most.
Even worse, plans to extend shared ownership risk losing even more social homes from our already depleted stock. Last year, England built fewer than 6,500 social homes for a waiting list of more than a million households, in a country where 123,000 children are growing up without a home. If the government then encourages people to buy their social homes without replacing them on at least a like-for-like basis, things will only get harder for millions across the country. Choosing to extend shared ownership is essentially inventing a remedy for a problem that doesn’t exist. Shared ownership is not crying out for new versions or more funding – but social housing is.
Somewhere, amongst these half-hearted proposals, there is a glimmer of hope. At Shelter’s fringe event at conference, it was refreshing to hear from so many conservatives who said social housing is a must. The apparent lack of will to take meaningful action at the top does not filter down to the members who make up the party. Maybe that’s because the party rank and file are closer to what real voters want. If the Conservatives really are serious about “serving the people” then they should note that a recent YouGov poll for Shelter proved Conservative voters want government to prioritise building social homes over homeownership schemes like Help to Buy and shared ownership.
If the government wants to put a decent offer on the table for struggling renters, then the solutions are clear; private renting needs to be more affordable and secure, and there must be social housing for those who still can’t make ends meet.
It means following through on the government’s commitment to end Section 21 no-fault evictions, so that families can’t be evicted for no good reason with only eight weeks’ notice. It means ending the freeze on housing benefit – which is supposed to help struggling families cover their private rent – and increasing the amount so people can actually afford to keep the roof over their head. And without a doubt, it means a 20-year programme to build three million social homes for those who have been left behind by the housing emergency and desperately need a boost. Be warned: if a serious offer of more social housing goes missing on election day, then votes will go missing too.
Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter