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Fix the housing crisis

It’s the way to bring Britain together

By Mark Washer  

This article was produced in association with Sovereign Housing Association

As the scale of their defeat became clear, Labour began to talk about a period of reflection. While they do this, the Conservatives can press home their advantage and, if they can listen and deliver on the trust placed in them by new voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands, they could dominate the political landscape and achieve a radical, long-term and progressive policy agenda.

It has been hard to look too far ahead since the European referendum, with the country divided and many central domestic issues over-shadowed by Brexit. For last few years we have being trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of that division.

As we went to the polls in 2017, household wage growth was slowing and falling behind inflation. Even today, with high employment, wage levels remain slightly behind those seen before the housing market crash and recession a decade ago.

Compare that to cost of living and house prices, neither of which have been so constrained. Market rents, too, have climbed faster than inflation in many places.

One in seven people in England are directly impacted by the housing crisis, according to National Housing Federation research. That’s eight million people trying to build a life in insecure, overcrowded or unsuitable homes. 320,000 people have no home at all.

The housing crisis reaches every corner of the country, every age group and demographic. It crosses class divides, leading to insecurity, and uncertainty about the future.

And the outlook is not stable. The population is ageing, presenting policy-makers with multiple challenges; technology is evolving rapidly, revolutionising how we live; and greening the nation’s housing stock is key to achieving a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

If we can fix the housing crisis by providing quality, affordable homes, within sustainable, resilient and socially-mixed places, we can make life better for everyone, driving the economy forward and bringing communities back together.

There were positive signs in the Conservative manifesto, but, in 2020, with a majority and mandate, government can focus on creating a long-term, national housing strategy. A strategy positioning housing as an essential part of the nation’s infrastructure, as much a part of a successful economy as roads, rail, schools and health.

To do this, we must address some fundamental issues.

First, we must be clear that all tenures and all routes to new supply play a critical role. An affordable home rented from a housing association or council is no less valid than homeownership. It must be treated equally if we’re to avoid the stigma many social tenants have said they feel. Home ownership is a great opportunity for many, but it is not right for all.

We must look beyond the 300,000 homes a year target, delivering the right homes, in the right places, at the right price.

Housing associations are a major part of the supply solution, alongside government, councils and housebuilders. We must all work together.

The second point is money. Sovereign is stepping up – not only are we providing 2,000 new and affordable homes every year, we’re also buying and developing on our own land so we have more control over their quality and sustainability.

We can do this because we’re financially strong, but cross-subsidy, surpluses and new borrowing can only go so far. To build at scale, we need greater levels of government subsidy, alongside a fresh approach to public land and planning – a 50:50 split on land value uplift between landowners and public infrastructure mentioned by Sajid Javid before the election would be a good start.

The final point is to put politics aside, to listen, and think about the long-term health of our communities.

This is the housing association way. As Sovereign marks its 30th birthday, we’re focusing on the future.

We can plan and invest in communities over decades. We can be genuine placemakers, creating places where people are keen to live, that mature and improve over time.

Beyond bricks and mortar, we’re reinventing our landlord and community services too, sparking social action, supporting employment and tackling homelessness – so people can realise their potential.

Long-term government support for supply and holistic placemaking, with private and public sectors working together, blending housing, education, employment, health and sustainability would be transformative. It would be even more powerful with plans co-created with the community.

The housing portfolio in Boris Johnson’s cabinet will be a key position, not just to help Britain build more homes, but to rebuild communities who made their voices heard at the ballot box.

Read the new housing supplement in full

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