09 Jun 2021

Affordable housing must be at the heart of the Government’s legislative agenda

In May 2021, the Queen’s Speech provided an opportunity for ministers to put affordable housing centre stage. Alongside promises to abolish Section 21 evictions and reform the planning system, the government’s proposals must boost social housing and tackle our affordability crisis.

According to the Affordable Housing Commission, 20% of all households were concerned about the affordability of their housing before COVID-19. This figure was much higher in the private rented sector, where 43% of households reported similar concerns. These numbers will only increase as house prices rise and COVID-related protections end.

A major concern is the continued disinvestment in social housing, which has been in decline since the Right to Buy boom of the 1980s. According to the Affordable Housing Commission, if the trend continues, another 400,000 social homes will be lost by 2045. Social housing will then account for just 11% of all homes in England, compared with 30% in the 1970s.

While social housing won’t solve all of the housing system’s problems, it’s easy to see that the decrease of social homes in the mix adds pressure, particularly on the private rented sector.

The Nationwide Foundation’s concern is that another generation will have no choice but to live in unaffordable homes that don’t meet their needs.

Due to shortages of affordable rented housing from social landlords, even more households will be pushed into the private rented sector - one that is often ill-suited to provide for the needs of vulnerable tenants. Families on low incomes and older people will increasingly look to renting privately, faced with tenancies that are often short-term, where problems exist with property conditions and where housing costs are higher.  

What is clear is that there are no quick fixes. What is needed is a wider, longer-term consideration of the system as a whole.

While the government has published proposals to reform the planning system, a survey that we funded showed that some changes are likely to lead to less social and affordable homes being built overall. The government’s intention to reform is laudable, however, if speeding up the process, or modernising it, means fewer genuinely affordable homes, a grave error will have been made.

Of course, we must get building, to bridge the housing supply gap and provide the boost to jobs and growth that house-building offers. But as the recent Archbishops’ housing report concluded, simply building more houses, whilst important, is not enough.

What becomes clearer by the day, is that all roads must lead to a national, cross-party, and long-term strategy for housing. For too long, housing and planning reforms have been predicated on meeting the parliamentary cycle rather than meeting the needs of the nation. Both the Affordable Housing Commission and the Archbishops’ Housing Commission have called for a housing strategy aimed at rebalancing the nation’s housing. Such a strategy demands a change in housing and planning policy – and, critically, in funding for genuinely affordable homes that aren’t sold or rented at market rate.

A successful strategy will have a vision for what the housing sector should look like, setting out the right mixes of tenure and home types. It will ensure thriving communities and meet the needs of our changing population: those who are vulnerable and currently inadequately served in the private rented sector; families relying on access to jobs, and good education for their children; and those who are caught in the trap of poverty due to high housing costs.

What is needed, is a plan for how to achieve that vision over the next two or three decades – centred on increasing the supply of genuinely affordable homes, with social housing being a key piece of the puzzle.

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the failings of our housing system, particularly for private renters. As emergency measures are phased out, we must ensure that a robust strategy for housing is developed. The government has conceded that we have a housing crisis and it has intervened to support homebuyers and housebuilders. Now it must put a plan in place, to pull housing back from the brink and ensure we provide genuinely affordable housing for future generations.  

Written by Leigh Pearce

Leigh Pearce is the chief executive of The Nationwide Foundation.