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England lost more than 200,000 of the most affordable social homes in the last decade

Scaling up building and pausing Right to Buy proposed to end ‘11 years of failure’ that have deepened the housing crisis

social homes like Kentmere Tower in Birmingham England

Efforts to build social housing have declined in the decades since Kentmere Tower was built in Birmingham in 1960. Image: Lydia / Flickr

England’s social housing has reached “crisis point” as more than 200,000 of the country’s most affordable social homes have disappeared in the last decade, new analysis from housing experts has found.

The plummeting supply in homes for some of the country’s most vulnerable people has led to a rise in rents, meaning a housing benefit bill which has swelled to over £20bn after “11 years of failure”, according to one expert.

“The level of housing need in this country is at crisis point,” said Rachel Williamson, head of policy and external affairs at Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which authored the report. “Many renters are now closer to homelessness than home ownership. Social rented housing is the most effective way of reducing the benefit bill and tackling homelessness.”

The authors of Chartered Institute of Housing’s UK Housing Review set out to find the scale of England’s social home shortage. They found a failure to build enough new homes and the continued impact of the Right to Buy scheme has seen the number of homes available for social rent plummet by 218,000 since 2012.

The shortfall has seen private rents rise to record levels with a housing benefit bill swelling to an estimated £23.4bn to cover it. Williamson said Right to Buy sales must be paused until like-for-like replacements can be secured to stop the situation deteriorating further. 

“Decent, affordable homes are the foundations for people’s lives. This analysis shows that for too long, these foundations have been undermined by a severe lack of social housing supply,”  she added.

“It’s clear from this analysis that the government needs to focus on boosting the supply of affordable social homes as well as pausing Right to Buy sales – at least until one for one replacement can be assured. Everyone deserves to have a secure, quality home.” 

Overall, 122,000 homes for social rent – typically available to rent at around 50-60 per cent of the market rate – have been delivered in England over the last 11 years.

By contrast, 157,000 social rent homes have been sold off via Right to Buy, 60,000 have been demolished while 122,000 have been converted to lettings classed as affordable rents. 

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Affordable rents typically can be set at up to 80 per cent of market value and, despite the name, are often considered to be unaffordable for low-income renters. 

Over the last 11 years an additional 326,000 affordable rent homes have been delivered either through conversions or newly built homes.

The government has promised to ramp up efforts to build more homes for people on low incomes through the £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme.

But so far there has been a low priority given to social rent homes. The CIH review found just 13 per cent of new affordable homes delivered for social rent in 2021/22 were for social rent, amounting to 7,528 homes.

The Department for Levelling Up (DLUHC) has targeted building 33,500 social rented homes through the programme in the five years up to 2026.

The authors of the housing review said this level is likely to be achieved but is unlikely to keep up with demand and said output is still insufficient to prevent a net loss of a further 10,000 dwellings let at social rents in the last year.

A report from Savills and the Local Government Association, released earlier this month, warned the Right to Buy scheme would see a further 57,000 homes lost by 2030 with councils struggling to replace homes lost through sales. 

LGA’s David Renard said: “Right To Buy can enable families to get on the housing ladder and own their own home, but every home sold that isn’t replaced risks pushing more families into the private rented sector, driving up housing benefit spending and rents, along with exacerbating our homelessness crisis.”

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The Social Housing Action Campaign’s Suz Muna told The Big Issue the lost 200,000 social homes represents “11 years worth of failure”.

“This report underscores the need for government to look at an alternative model for delivering public housing,” said Muna. “This is not a single year’s failing for the current model, but 11 years worth of failure. We need the government to invest in a programme of fully funded council house-building and end Right to Buy.

“This sounds like it would be expensive, but when people are made homeless by high rents and service charges, it is councils that have to provide emergency accommodation. When people are made sick through mould, damp and dilapidated housing, it is the NHS that provides treatment. And when people lose their jobs because poor housing makes it impossible to sustain good employment, it’s the benefits system that supports them.

Council housing wouldn’t cost more, it would just use our public resources more effectively.”

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Overall more than two million homes have been sold under the Right to Buy scheme since it was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. 

Last year then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to extend the Right to Buy scheme to allow up to 2.5 million housing association tenants to buy their own homes. The move faced criticism at the time with Shelter chief executive Polly Neate describing the move as “the opposite of what the country needs”.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We do not recognise these figures. Right to Buy has helped over two million social housing tenants to become homeowners and since 2012, councils have retained more than £4 billion of Right to Buy receipts for investment in new affordable housing.

“We are also investing £11.5 billion to build more affordable homes and have built more than 632,000 since 2010, including 162,000 for social rent.”

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