Why we need a once-in-a-generation investment in new homes

In part two of a special investigation into the future of house building in England, The Big Issue looks into the nation's desperate need for more social housing – and how it could create jobs in the wake of Covid-19

Ministers have set a target of 300,000 new homes per year by 2025. The volume of social housing created since the announcement in 2017 has stayed in the low thousands. It will take a funding uplift of £10bn a year to get the social housing initiative on track. This stands while the Government focuses on cutting red tape for developers to build office conversion homes which promise no benefit to communities in need – read part one of our investigation here.

Even pre-pandemic figures showed a system at breaking point. The number of households living in temporary accommodation like B&Bs and hostels soared by 82 per cent in the past decade, with the number of rough sleepers shooting up by 165 per cent in the same period. It is a social housing revolution that will pull the nation out of crisis after Covid-19, experts say – not the easing up of planning permissions to make homes out of offices and shops.

Councils and social housing providers are “at the limits of what can be achieved” on current budgets, the Government’s housing select committee said in a report earlier this month. They see some solutions. For instance, the Government could reduce the public spending required if it used public land to build on instead of selling it for revenue. And local authorities should be allowed to keep the entirety of receipts from Right to Buy homes too, according to the MPs, to make it affordable for them to create replacement social housing.

Reducing planning standards just won’t cut it for the thousands of families on long waiting lists for social homes, the National Housing Federation (NHF) told The Big Issue.

“There is a desperate need for a new generation of social housing in this country,” NHF head of policy Rob Wall said. “The only way to achieve this is through a once-in-a-generation investment in building new social homes. Other reforms, like cutting planning regulations, won’t have the same impact – in fact, these could even make it harder to provide the high-quality affordable homes that are needed across the country. ​

He added: “By investing in social housing, ministers would not only help millions of people find a decent home that they can afford​ – they would also ​deliver on their ambition to ‘build, build, build’.”

It’s something the Affordable Housing Commission homed in on in their 12-point plan to rescue the country’s housing sector from the pandemic. Focused on social housing-boosting policy, the plan is designed to improve housing conditions, tackle inequality and reduce carbon emissions.

It includes reforming Right to Buy and permitted development rights, capping rent prices and establishing a Housing Conversion Fund – a cash pot helping social landlords and communities buy homes which are empty or which owners are struggling to shift on the market.

Social housing has been a very small percentage of what has been built over the past few years

Lord Richard Best, commission chair, pointed out that investing in the sector would create jobs and help the economy. It’s a sentiment echoed by both the Government’s housing select committee and the NHF.

They reckon a cash injection for the construction industry by way of social housing could create a way forward for the thousands who have lost jobs or seen their incomes slashed as a result of the pandemic. And for young people, particularly impacted by redundancies across the hospitality sector, the employment picture is looking especially bleak. But there are suggestions that now is the time to open up opportunities in the construction industry – creating jobs for those recently out of work and building a social housing army.

It’s an idea of particular interest to PHASES, a Southwark-based project helping homeless and marginalised people into training and work in the construction sector. Big Issue Invest made its first ever housing investment to PHASES back in 2014, making it possible for them to renovate empty properties and create affordable homes as well as giving vulnerable people a way out of poverty.

“Proper low-rent social housing has been a very small percentage of what has been built over the past few years,” chief executive Glenn Heaton told The Big Issue. “If the Government will take on the report’s suggestions to develop land and help councils, that’s the right way to do it. And if there’s a boom in social housing construction like we need, PHASES wants to be part of that conversation.

“Working in construction is hugely beneficial,” he said. “It enhances someone’s social skills, there are therapeutic benefits, and you’re working towards a common goal that will benefit the local community.”

A different approach to apprenticeships could be what’s needed coupled with more social housing, Heaton said. “People immediately think of the 18-21-year-old archetype, but a lot of the people we deal with reach right up into their 50s. It’s not easy for them. Apprenticeship wages are pretty low, which is a major barrier for older adults who want to get into it. But they’re a great thing – it’s a mixture of work, learning and being paid.

“And now we’re about to go through a significant structural shift in the economy, lots of people will have to change career. There are so many possibilities in construction, not just brick-laying on a building site. Opening up those opportunities to a wider pool of people is, to me, the way forward. Bring the need for good-quality social housing and the massive potential of the construction industry together at the time when we need it most.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Building the homes this country needs is central to the mission of this government and is an important part of the action we are taking to recover from the impacts of coronavirus.

“That’s why we’ve announced an overhaul of the country’s outdated planning system that will deliver the high-quality, sustainable homes communities need.

“We are ensuring more much-needed social housing is delivered by removing the borrowing cap for councils and spending more than £12 billion on affordable housing from 2021 – the biggest cash investment in a decade.”