The Housing and Planning Act: a missed opportunity
As the Housing and Planning Act reaches the statute book this is a good moment to take stock of its likely impact on homelessness. Homelessness has been rising, and this Government has made clear its commitment to tackling it. Recent announcements that the Government will look at legislative change to better protect people from homelessness and allocate £100m to create hostel move-on for 2,000 people are particularly welcome. It is disappointing, therefore, that the Government has not gone further in joining the dots between its broader strategy to tackle homelessness and the supply of housing for low income households.
The Government’s objectives for the Act were to increase housing supply, boost homeownership and improve the management of rented housing – all measures with the potential to improve access to housing for homeless households. But the devil is in the detail.
The key area in which the Act looks set to have a positive impact are the provisions to tackle rogue landlords; these should help drive up standards and protect vulnerable tenants. It is disappointing however that the Government chose not to go further with provisions to improve access to private renting and security of tenure in the sector – measures that Crisis has been calling for to enable private renting to play a greater role in meeting the needs of homeless households.
The Act also introduced reforms to the way council tenancies are managed which the Government argues should “substantially increase the number of available lettings”. But this claim is not well evidenced and if tenancy turnover does increase, any boost to supply will take some years to materialise.
In the meantime, any future gains in tenancy turnover are likely to be more than offset by a reduction in the size of the social rented stock. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that as many as 370,000 homes will be lost from the stock of social rented housing by 2020. Some of this loss will be caused by the forced sale of “higher value” council homes to fund the right to buy for housing association tenants. During the passage of the Bill it became clear that councils will not necessarily be permitted to replace homes sold on a like for like basis. So low cost housing for rent will likely be replaced by homes for sale. At the same time, provisions that prioritise the construction of Starter Homes aimed at higher earners will make it more difficult for councils to ensure that new developments include any housing for low cost rent. As a consequence, the relative and actual size of England’s social rented sector looks set to decline.
In response to concerns about the net loss of homes for social rent, the Government has used a curious argument to set out its credentials as a supporter of affordable renting, reminding MPs that the present Government has presided over the construction of more council homes than its Labour predecessors did over 13 years. And yet, while this Government’s track record on council house building is better than its predecessor, the actual contribution it makes to new rental supply is still tiny, averaging around 1,300 completions per year in England in the five years since 2010/11. Ironically, councils’ ability to build homes for low cost rent will be undermined by having to pay the forced sales levy to Government to fund housing associations’ right to buy discounts. Housing associations on the other hand have, until now, routinely built tens of thousands of new homes for low cost rent each year. But their ability to keep delivering homes for rent at this rate is at risk precisely because of the provisions of the new Act combined with the Government’s decision to shift affordable housing investment away from building new homes for rent.
The Housing and Planning Act will further reduce the already limited housing options available to people who can’t raise a mortgage, including homeless households. If the Government is serious about tackling homelessness it will have to face up to the crisis in housing supply for the lowest earners alongside its commitment to boost levels of homeownership.