With social housing provision at a record low there are signs of change says Hank Dittmar

Hank Dittmar index

More evidence of the further collapse of social housing is detailed in recent Homes and Communities Agency figures. Outside of London, only 173 homes for social rent were built in England in 2016 which is the lowest figure on record. Over 120,000 social homes were lost to Right to Buy between 2012 and 2016, and a total of 250,000 are expected to be lost by 2020. Over 1.2 million people are on council housing waiting lists.

Even construction of so-called affordable rent homes, which can cost up to 80% of market rents has declined over the last two years, with 7,082 built between April and September 2017 as against 9,344 in the same period of 2016.

Right to Buy was supposed to usher in a new era of home ownership for those of more limited means, but evidence suggests it has led to a rise in the number of absentee landlords renting out former council homes. According to Inside Housing, forty percent of former council housing stock is being rented out, with a high of seventy percent in Milton Keynes. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that housing benefit is being used to pay rents to former council stock owners, meaning that the public purse is paying at least twice to house people. These figures, expected to rise to half of all former properties, do not include those being rented in the grey market, or under the table.

All this comes at a time when it is clear that relying on volume house builders to increase housing supply is unlikely as their incentive is to keep prices and margins high. Nor can the delivery of affordable housing by private builders be relied upon, with the continuing use of viability assessments to reduce the already derisory requirements in many boroughs.

While most media attention has seemed to focus on so-called Generation Rent’s difficulty in getting on the housing ladder because of the cost of purchasing a new home, there are signs that the crisis in availability of truly affordable housing is finally getting attention. This includes Chancellor Hammond’s recent budget announcement to help millennials get onto the housing ladder by cracking down on land banking and further subsidies for first time buyers. But the government has encouraged councils to build more homes by lifting the borrowing cap by £1 billion, and providing direct funding. However there was no direction given to dedicate these funds to social housing and most experts felt the move was too limited.

A new book called Square Deal by MP Nick Boles, the founder of Policy Exchange and former planning minister, may reflect a changing mood about social housing even among Tories. Boles argues that councils should take the lead in acquiring and bringing land forward for development, buying it for the current use value. This mirrors the current system in Germany as well as the process followed in building the first generation of post war New Towns. Boles calls for an addition of 500,000 new affordable homes, though he doesn’t say these homes should be built for social rent, as I think he should.

Councils across Britain are beginning to take up the challenge. This month Liverpool announced a new company to build 10,000 homes over 8 to 10 years for sale and rent. Bristol has embarked on a house building programme using builders as contractors rather than developers. Perhaps Camden has the most ambitious programme by announcing it will build 664 homes, of which 229 will be retained as council homes.

Camden’s leadership is fitting, as Mark Swenarton’s new book Cook’s Camden revealed the borough’s historic role in designing and delivering quality urban housing under borough architect Sydney Cook. Neave Brown’s recognition by RIBA has further showcased high quality, high density low and midrise street based housing pioneered in Camden in the middle of the last century. Camden wasn’t alone in producing good homes for social rent. From LCC estates in the post war era to well-designed local authority estates with a mix of low and high rise; the diversity of design responses to building affordable housing is clear.

Policy and funding will not be enough as design leadership was instrumental in building the homes that even today provide shelter for many people. Few councils have borough architects today or even design champions, and without a consistent voice for humane design, I fear the project managers and the budgeteers will have the loudest voices. The new interactive Public Practice where promising planners, architects and urbanists are placed in year long placements with councils is a hopeful sign, and one hopes it will demonstrate to local authorities that investing in in-house design leadership is an essential component of delivering the public housing that Britain desperately needs.