Lord Whitty is the chair of Housing Voice, the affordable homes alliance; members of the alliance include Citizens Advice, the National Housing Federation, UNISON, CPAG, TPAS, TUC, CDS co-operatives and the NUS
The independent inquiry into the affordable homes crisis being carried out by Housing Voice is now at its mid point.
Evidence has been received from a wide range of housing bodies, tenants groups, unions and advocacy organisations, with hearings held in the south and north. We have two further hearings to go – in London on Friday March 29th and in Birmingham on Saturday March 30th.
In addition to the hearings, the inquiry continues to receive hundreds of completed questionnaires from members of the public, who have participated online, or via paper surveys provided in Citizen Advice surgery waiting rooms.
Although we have further evidence to receive and then lots of work to do in terms of identifying top line messages and recommendations, some strong themes are emerging which demonstrate the political and human dimensions of the shortage of decent affordable homes.
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Here are four to give a flavour.
First, it is becoming clear that we won’t close the gap between the hopes of those who are in different kinds of housing need and the political action necessary to assist them until housing ranks alongside health and education on the political agenda.
Time and again during the course of our work we have seen evidence of the way in which housing suffers from being seen as a priority political issue for those at the sharp end, but not for a sufficient number of voters in swing seats to put the issue the front rank.
It is, in effect, an issue that has been taken out of collective politics. This won’t do. We need policy makers to take responsibility.
Second, there is no silver bullet policy solution. There do appear, however, to be a number of policies that could make a genuine difference to the supply and availability of decent affordable homes, and to the quality of life of people, young and old, in housing need.
We have heard a number of new ideas, such as housing enterprise zones and using pension funds to invest in affordable housing. And we have also been told about the continued relevance of more traditional options hit by spending cuts, such as increased public investment in local authority and housing association homes.
Some options – those that involve higher public investment – would clearly cost more than others, such as tenure reform and proper regulation of the private rented sector). But solving the problem can’t be restricted to low cost options.
Third, incomes and housing costs have to become reconnected. To do this we do need a clear definition of what we mean by affordable housing.
The new affordable rent model (homes provided by housing associations at up to 80 per cent of the market rate) clearly means something different in London – where the average rent for a two-bedroom home is more than £2,000 per month – than in parts of the north, where 80 per cent of the market rate is typically lower than the standard social rent offered by housing associations and local authorities.
At our hearing in Exeter we learned that the south west is the only region in which the average regional wage is below the national average and the average house price above the national average. People looking to buy a home face a house price/income ratio of 11:1.
The human costs of the affordability cannot and should not be ignored. In addition to the affect on already squeezed household budgets, in Manchester we heard about the increasing number of families with grown up children living at home because they can’t afford to move out.
Fourth, solving the affordable housing crisis is indivisible from the economic recovery. At one level this is about job creation. Evidence we received from the Northern Housing Consortium made the case clearly in terms of the size of the economic multiplier generated from construction, and the longer term importance in terms of generating decent jobs and skills.
It is also closely linked to regeneration, which in many places has stalled because of cuts and policy change – but affordable housing also has to be at the heart of any attempt to rebalance the UK economy. If the UK is to avoid another housing bubble, and reduce household debt, we need to ensure supply balances demand.
At the current time new household formation is outrunning the number of new homes at a rate of about two to one.
Do we think there will be a receptive audience to our message at the conclusion of our work? As a non party aligned civil society campaign we do want to give policy makers the benefit of the doubt.
We acknowledge that all parties want to make a difference on housing; but you could say we have something of a paradox. We have a consensus that action is needed, but no real competition between the parties in terms of a tangible forward offer on the number affordable new homes to be delivered, or on what affordable should mean.
Would competition, or consensus, be best going onto the next election – whenever that may be? This is one of the issues we will be thinking about as we draw all of our evidence together over the coming months. One thing is clear: a housing recovery is needed.
Organisations and individuals wishing to submit evidence to the enquiry should make contact via the Housing Voice website.