Where are the homes we need?

Last week saw the unveiling of the new coalition government’s key policy proposals. Public finances and the economy are obviously highest on the 'to do' list, and the announcement earlier this week of £6 billion savings is only the first wave of cuts.

Cameron’s Big Society is the philosophical idea underpinning many of the proposals with implications for the voluntary sector, or civil society, as we are now meant to call it.

Whilst there are various bullet points in the document about devolving power to local authorities and local communities, much of the detail still needs to be clarified. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that whatever the Big Society is, it can not be presented as an alternative to public funding.

Churches and church linked community projects should not be seen as the means of providing services on the cheap in order to bail out the public purse. That said, we will undoubtedly step into some of the gaps because our motivation gives us no option.

Housing in particular seems to be very low profile in these proposals. There is no reference to affordability or the shortage of decent housing for rent, the issues which most affect families and households on low incomes.

There is little about mortgage or credit regulation, or any substantive measures to contain house price inflation - although there is a proposal to include housing costs in the CPI measure of inflation, which is welcome.

One of the most radical and far reaching ideas in the new programme is the devolution of decision making to local government. While this may be a good thing from a democratic point of view, the devolution of housing and planning could result in councils deciding not to allow any affordable housing at all.

There is nevertheless a proposal on “incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including new homes”, which was in the Conservative Housing Green Paper last year. That was proposing cash incentives in the form of an enhanced council tax grant to local authorities building affordable housing.

For Housing Associations and other housing providers, the questions are around the new localised planning regime and the loss of regional targets; regulation, as the Tenants Services Authority looks likely to be replaced; capital funding under a reduced Homes and Communities Agency budget, and revenue funding though Housing Benefit and Supporting People. Some of this may be clarified when we see the texts of the draft Bills and also in the Budget on 22 June.

No surprise that there is still a strong emphasis on home ownership as the preferred tenure of choice, including the continued promotion of shared ownership schemes.

There are some proposals that Housing Justice would favour, such as “to explore” measures to bring empty homes back into use. But local authorities already have empty dwelling management orders, and to achieve progress on this requires financial commitment.

Another welcome proposal is "to create new trusts that will make it simpler for communities to provide homes for local people." These sound like Community Land Trusts, which certainly have a role to play, especially in the rural context. But again, without funding, active promotion and training, CLTs are unlikely to have significant impact on local housing need.

Freeing up land for the supply of affordable housing is given minimal attention. This is a big omission. Unless mechanisms are found for devolved local authorities or other providers to get the land they need for new housing, the result is going to be many more years of waiting list misery for those in housing need - currently 2 million families and growing year by year.

Another signal that housing will not be given the same priority as it had under previous Labour administrations is that the Minister for Housing, Grant Shapps, does not have a permanent seat in cabinet. Communities Minister Eric Pickles has housing as part of his portfolio.

Housing is a fundamental human need and these proposals simply do not do enough to address the massive shortage of affordable housing we are facing. Housing Justice will continue to campaign for more affordable housing and better and more joined up responses to the needs of people who are homeless and in housing need in our society.

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(c) Alastair Murray is deputy director of Housing Justice

More infornation

BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8693832.stm

Direct Gov for full document: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Nl1/Newsroom/DG_187877

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