Housing

Are social rent homes really the 'silver bullet' to fix UK's housing crisis?

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been talking about social rent. But are their promises realistic?

affordable housing

A lack of social housing is pushing people into private renting. With rents at record highs, the bill for housing benefit to help tenant cover rent is enormous. Image: Image: Ethan Wilkinson / Unsplash

There is only one form of truly affordable housing for many living on low incomes: social rent.

Taking the form of rent subsidised by the government, it’s rising up the political agenda. Labour has said it would increase the stock of social homes, while the government is “thinking about” encouraging planning authorities to prioritise it. 

Set according to property size and value, as well as local incomes, the average social rent in England is £94.31 a week. It’s in contrast to “affordable rent”, set at about 80% of market rates, and is seen as a way to provide housing for those who can’t afford it, and to reduce reliance on benefits.

But progress has been slow – and experts warn politicians’ promises might not be the silver bullet they seem.

The Levelling Up committee said in February that the government needs to build 90,000 more social rent homes a year.

This would buck a long-term trend of decline. The number of social rent homes fell from 4.0 million in March 2013 to 3.8 million in March 2021, according to research by the House of Commons.

Here’s the rub: without extra funding, big promises are unlikely to pan out.

“Unless somebody’s going to produce some additional money, I can’t see how it’s going to be anybody’s silver bullet”, says Christine Whitehead, emeritus professor of housing economics at the London School of Economics.

“You can’t get a lot more without putting some money in, and I don’t think there’s any suggestion that the government’s going to put money in at the moment,” says Whitehead, who also advises the communities and local government select committee on private renting.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

The government’s affordable homes programme provides £11.5 billion in funding to build 180,000 new homes, with half of this money allocated to discounted rent schemes. This brings a trade-off, says Nick Gallent, professor of housing and planning at University College London.

“If there’s no extra funding and planning authorities just focus on social rent requests, there will be less ‘affordable housing’ overall,” Gallent says.

This is because social rent is more expensive to subsidise, and so fewer homes can be supported from the same budget.

“If you shift from affordable rent to social rent, the cost is greater,” Gallent explains. “But it’s possible to increase social rent by reducing other products. But the unit total of all ‘affordable housing’ will fall, unless additional resource is found.”

Gallent added: “Either Labour or the Tories can focus on social rent, at the expense of other ‘affordable tenures’.  But if you want the total number of ‘affordable homes’ to stay the same or grow, whilst focusing on social rent, you’d need to increase grant levels or extract more from the development process.”

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Despite all the lip service from both main parties, and its potential to transform lives, don’t expect social rent to dominate the airwaves during the election.

“I would be surprised if it was important, honestly,” says Whitehead.

“I think what’s important to people is: are we going to build any more houses? Getting down to the detail of who they’re for, I wouldn’t have thought that’s going to be very important in the election I’m afraid.”

Instead, for local authorities, a lack of funds and emergency housing presents more pressing issues.

“Many local authorities are much more worried about where they can get temporary housing from,” says Whitehead.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Building more social housing could save NHS and DWP billions – and add even more to UK's economy
a builder working on social housing
Social housing

Building more social housing could save NHS and DWP billions – and add even more to UK's economy

'You live in fear': Leasehold homeowners share horror stories of nasty hidden fees and service charges
leasehold, michael gove
Leasehold

'You live in fear': Leasehold homeowners share horror stories of nasty hidden fees and service charges

Leaseholder rights: How to fight against rip-off service charges – a step-by-step guide
service charges, flats, UK
Leasehold

Leaseholder rights: How to fight against rip-off service charges – a step-by-step guide

TSB Bank forced to change buy-to-let mortgage policy after renters' furious sit-in protest
Renters from Acorn union occupied TSB branches to force a climbdown on buy-to-let mortgages
Renting

TSB Bank forced to change buy-to-let mortgage policy after renters' furious sit-in protest

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know