Guardian Housing Network

Giving the government the green light on housing need?

[Originally posted on The Guardian Housing Network, 10/11/11; An edited version of this post]

Last month saw the launch of the first edition of The Housing Report, a joint report from the Chartered Institute of Housing, National Housing Federation and Shelter. The idea is a good one: governments make all sorts of statements about policy aspirations and achievements, and piecing together the available evidence allows us to scrutinise these claims and assess progress.

The report applies a traffic light rating to 10 areas of housing policy, including housing supply and overcrowding, with the aim of returning to the issues regularly to review progress. Its overall assessment of the coalition government’s housing record so far is hardly overwhelming.

Across the 10 areas the government is awarded just two green lights, three amber lights, and four red lights. In one area – overcrowding – the government has made quite a bit of noise but there is no data available to show us what’s happening. The report observes that “it is too early to judge whether government policies … will have the desired effect”. A sterner critic might add that even if policies had the desired effect, they may do little to reduce overcrowding.

The report contextualises current developments to allow readers to evaluate policy claims. This is most evident on housing supply. An oft-repeated claim this summer has been that the Affordable Rent programme is a roaring success. Landlords submitted bids to build 170,000 units by 2015, rather than the planned 150,000.

The report notes that 67,000 of these units were already committed under Labour, and this programme falls a long way short of the 97,000 units of affordable housing per year that Shelter estimated were needed as far back as 2009. Add to this the fact that overall housing starts have barely recovered from their low in the third quarter of 2008 and it’s no surprise that housing supply attracts a red light.

Red lights are also awarded on help with housing costs, homelessness, and affordability in the private rented sector. These are all areas through which high levels of housing stress become visible. The indicators in these areas are deteriorating – and some of that deterioration is policy-induced.

The coalition government picks up an amber light on evictions, repossessions and arrears, home ownership, and planning. The first two seem fair enough, but an amber for planning seems quite charitable.

The abolition of regional spatial strategies has reduced the volume of planned new development. The New Homes Bonus is hardly going to counteract this on its own. The government is betting the farm on the new National Planning Policy Framework delivering more new homes. This is hotly contested, but it is reasonably clear that NPPF isn’t going to make much practical difference to housing supply until 2013 or 2014, so the shortfall will continue to worsen.

The government is awarded a green light on empty homes and mobility. The government is taking the problem of empty homes seriously, and a green light on mobility in the social sector is also probably fair enough.

But that last green light raises a question: are these issues of equal significance? Enhancing mobility in the social rented sector is a good thing – it may improve the overall utilization of the housing stock – but it isn’t on a scale comparable with lack of housing supply and the crippling affordability problems in the private rented sector.

Does the report fully capture the dimensions across which we might wish to evaluate housing policy? There is nothing about the quality of the housing stock. We know quality in the private rented sector is relatively poor and that the government wants to increase the use of the sector to discharge homelessness duties. This feels an important omission.

There is nothing about environmental or social sustainability. There is nothing very directly about housing rights and security. They are mentioned during discussions of mobility and overcrowding, but framing the issue this way is to endorse the coalition’s view that overgenerous security of tenure in the social rented sector is a problem, and increasing security of tenure is not a solution to problems in the private rented sector. This position has its fair share of critics; it downplays arguments that something important is being lost as a result of current reforms.

We need to hold on to the issue of security. Housing is not like other goods or services, it is the platform upon which the rest of life is built. The housing system currently faces immense challenges. There is little doubt we face excess demand and an unmet need across sectors. In situations of persistent excess demand, households will face grave insecurity – and they will be exploited.

The Housing Report is a welcome initiative. The red-amber-green, or Rag, approach risks offering overly simplistic readings of complex situations, but I think the report avoids this pitfall. The strength of the Rag is in making the overall message accessible. If this assessment of underwhelming progress – which feels fair – gets more people engaged with the housing debate, then that’s got to be good.

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