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Election Watch: We need a grown-up, serious, discussion about Housing. Now.

I don't know how many of you watched the first election debate on Tuesday night. Having tuned in hoping for a serious policy discussion, that perhaps touched on the housing crisis, I was sorely disappointed. 

Instead of any detailed analysis, we received extremely short, high-level, soundbites promising tax-cuts to help first-time buyers save for a deposit (from the Conservatives) and planning reform, devolution and clear housing targets (from Labour). Now, this may have been a format issue. 45 seconds is simply not long enough to tackle such a complex issue, but, nonetheless, this election needs to include a serious, grown-up, discussion about housing. And that needs to happen now.

The housing crisis is no longer just causing intense personal hardship to people around the country. It is rapidly becoming an existential threat to local government.

Earlier this week, Housing Today reported that Affordable Housing starts in Southwark have dropped “by 96% in the latest financial year, falling to just 28 in 2023/24”.  Southwark is not alone in this. In the last financial year, affordable housing starts fell sharply across the whole of London. A situation replicated in many local authorities across the country.

At the same time, housing lists are growing and the costs of temporary accommodation soaring.

In February, the BBC reported that London Boroughs were spending £90m per month on temporary accommodation - up by almost 40% in the last year. The same article stated that:

"Since 2010, the number of London households in temporary accommodation has almost doubled - from 36,000 in March 2010 to 63,000 in September 2023, according to London Councils' latest data.

The main causes are thought to be the fast-rising cost of living and turbulence in London's private rented sector, alongside the shortage of affordable housing."

But this is not just a London issue. Research published by Generation Rent earlier this week found that: "Just under a quarter of councils in England spent £1 in every £20 of their budgets on temporary accommodation alone in 2022-23…

Of the 249 local councils analysed in the research, 8% spent at least £1 in every £10 of their Core Spending Power (CSP) in 2022/3 on households and families in temporary accommodation".

The Council reported as spending the highest proportion of its budget on temporary accommodation, Hastings, stated last year that the cost of housing the homeless risked triggering a s.114 notice. All of the top five authorities listed in the research are in the South East.

At the same time, many Registered Providers are focusing their resources on retrofitting and improving their existing stock, rather than increasing their development programmes. This has led to a drastic fall in demand for s.106 Affordable Housing. If you want to read more about the reasons for this, I recommend this article by Liz Williams and this article by Social Housing.

In short. We have a real and growing problem.  There is, however, cause for hope.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of joining Brian Horton,  Matthew Woodhead and other members of the South East Housing and Development Group for a virtual Affordable Housing Delivery Roundtable.

The energy, focus and determination of the people and organisations on that call was inspiring. In fact, it was exactly the type of conversation that we need to see replicated on a national level.

The group comprised developers, local authorities, registered providers and other professionals engaged in housing, planning and development. I promised not to directly attribute anything said within the forum, but do have permission to share the themes and action points resulting from the discussion.

Firstly, there was a remarkable level of consensus over the extent of the problem, which was repeatedly described as “Market Failure”.

There was also, however, a remarkable level of agreement over the required solutions:

  • In the short term, there was a call for a time-limited change in Homes England's grant funding rules, to allow grant funding to be used to support s.106 Affordable Housing. More  detail on that proposal can be found here.
  • There was also near unanimous support for the Housing Federation's Long Term Plan for Housing and for more support to be provided to RPs in upgrading their existing housing stock.
  • Crucially, there was also a clear acknowledgment that we cannot afford to wait for government intervention. We need to use the tools and resources available to us now, to find a way to start to make a difference.

The creativity and effort being put into finding those solutions that are already in our gift was incredible. In just one 90 minute call, I heard examples of:

  • Local planning authorities actively looking to bring more temporary accommodation and affordable housing stock in-house - to both reduce overall cost, increase supply and improve quality;
  • Councils exploring setting up their own registered providers, for very similar reasons;
  • Examples of partnership working, with Councils, RPs and developers working together to deliver high quality communities that also provide high levels of affordable homes.
  • A variety of solutions being discussed to help prevent housing sites being stalled by the current market failure in affordable housing. Including:
    • An increased use of cascade mechanisms in s.106 Agreements.
    • Greater flexibility in the housing and tenure mix required s.106 Agreements.
    • A willingness to revisit the requirement for First Homes when these weren't meeting local housing needs.
    • Exploring securing affordable housing by condition, or looking at ways to allow the deployment of grant funding on small sites, through amendments to s.106 agreements; and
    • Using the mandatory affordable housing relief provisions to CIL to encourage the delivery of additional or non-s.106 affordable housing.

In short, whilst we do desperately need this to be a housing election; we don't need to wait for the politicians to act before we can start making a difference.

Frankly, I don't think we can afford to. We need a grown-up, serious, discussion about Housing. So, let's have that discussion. With a bit of luck, and if we are loud enough, the next government (whatever form it takes) might listen.

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”This also reflects the situation more broadly where affordable housing starts fell by 90% across the whole of London last year”.

The latest Greater London Authority figures, published on 14 May, showed that between April 2023 and March 2024, building had started on just 2,358 grant-funded affordable homes in the capital, down from 25,658 in the previous year.

Completions also dropped, from 13,954 in 2022/23, to 10,949 in 2023/24.

In October 2023, the Greater London Authority confirmed that no new affordable homes have been started under the Mayor’s £4bn Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) 2021-26.”