Looking towards housing in this week’s Autumn Budget, there’s a feeling that we’ve been here before. As the housing crisis has continued each year to affect more people across the country, every key political moment has been linked to speculation about a major housing announcement.
Rumours have only been amplified since June’s General Election, when it became clear that the government lost votes (and its majority) to parts of the electorate who see their futures undermined by insecure and unaffordable housing.
After absorbing the shock of that result, the government’s immediate offer in the summer was to retain a commitment to ban letting agent fees for renters, in a legislative programme that was otherwise stripped of many of its major domestic policy commitments.
As that bill now makes its slow progress through parliament, the question is: how much further can the government go? For great expectations can lead to heavy anti-climax.
The government was buoyed last week by housebuilding figures that showed a 15% annual increase, and two big stump speeches from Theresa May and the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, both committing to dramatically increase the numbers of homes built.
While welcome, those top-line figures disguised the fact that this included the second lowest number of affordable homes in recent memory, and the fact that many thousands of these new homes were conversions – either splitting up existing houses or turning office blocks into flats.
The Chancellor committed over the weekend to building 300,000 homes per year, and measures in the Budget will include an inquiry into land banking and a commitment of £5billion to support smaller builders.
The government also announced last week that housing associations would be reclassified as private bodies, taking their debt off the public books. Some reaction has suggested that this will allow housing associations to build more homes, but this is something of a red herring; up until two years ago they were classified in the same way without major effect.
Of course, we need a range of solutions to what is now a decades-long problem, and the state should absolutely be increasing supply, most obviously through direct investment in genuinely affordable social housing and allowing local authorities to borrow more to build council homes.
But for those advocating for reform of the private rented sector, the worry is that attention turns again to housing supply, without recognising how other housing policy could affect so many more people in the immediate term.
We know that the Treasury has been looking at how it could increase security of tenure in the private rented sector through tax changes, and this must continue to be a priority.
Recent polling that we commissioned with Survation showed that insecurity in the private rented sector is dragging down households’ quality of life.
Among a number of key findings, the polling found that 35% of private renters were worried they will have to move home in the next year, compared with 16% of home owners.
Private renters were also less likely to know lots of people in their local area (42%) than home owners and council tenants (both 53%).
Ensuring that renters can live in their homes for longer would immediately improve the circumstances of 12million people, at minimal cost to the state. Compare that with £10billion pledged recently by government through Help to Buy to support 135,000 people secure a mortgage.
If government aren’t prepared to legislate to strengthen tenancies, and instead want to change behaviour through the tax system, they must do so in a way that heavily discourages evictions and heavy rent increases.
Renters want protection from eviction, not just the opportunity to commit to a longer contract, which can be difficult to do for a whole host of reasons. So in the long-term we need a system that abolishes ‘no fault’ evictions and puts limits on how much the rent can go up.
However many new homes we build, private renters aren’t going away and they need policies that directly benefit them now. The sooner we start to reform the private rented sector alongside building more homes, the sooner we’ll be making progress towards a genuine, joined-up and long-term housing strategy from government.