There have been plenty of Housing posts on Lib Dem Voice over the past few months. Social and affordable housing is rightly a hot issue and has been the subject of much debate. I have been keen to get stuck in myself, so I’ve had face-to-face meetings with party members, conference calls with my local government colleagues, and been online in this forum, all aimed at us having an informed and full dialogue.
The next step of that begins today with the Coalition Government’s Social Housing Consultation paper, which I launched this morning.
So far a lot of the housing debate has been speculation based (often rather loosely!) on the bare bones announcements in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Today, I am able to add flesh to those bones and provide real detail of our plans.
In drawing up our proposals, we’ve aimed to deliver three key reforms: make the system fairer, striking a proper balance between the needs of new and existing tenants; ensure that the support which social housing provides is focussed on those who need it most for as long as they need it; give local authorities and housing associations new powers so that they can make best use of their housing, in a way which best meets the needs of individual households and their local area.
The CSR announcement outlined proposals to build 150,000 new social homes over the next four years. That will see the first net increase in the social housing stock in thirty years. Previous Tory and Labour governments finished their periods in office with fewer social homes than they started with. In contrast we will have added well over 100,000 more homes net to the social housing stock. All because of Lib Dem influence in government.
But with money extremely tight, and housing waiting lists at their highest ever there have to be some tough choices made to ensure we get the most new homes possible for the lowest cost to the taxpayer, and the best match between the needs of those who depend on social housing, and the actual stock of homes we have.
That is why in addition to the retention of lifetime tenure, we will be introducing a new fixed term tenure option for new tenancies. Local authorities will have the freedom to introduce this if they wish, though they will be under no obligation to do so. In the longer term this policy will allow for a more efficient use of our social homes, and will help free up more homes for people in need.
Combined with the plan for a national home swap scheme (which will make it easier for tenants looking to downsize to swap with tenants who are looking for bigger properties), we will begin to tackle the twin problems of overcrowding and under-occupation within the housing stock.
These proposals protect lifetime tenure for all existing tenants, and it will still be an option for new tenants as well.
But we do need to build more homes and coming out of a recession, when money is tight, we need new mechanisms to be able to achieve this.
This is why we are introducing the new affordable rent, still below market level, but at a higher rate than typical social rents, designed to help Housing Associations raise money to build more social homes.
Again, this will just be an option for RSLs, who will have the ability to decide how much is charged (up to a maximum of 80% of Broad Area Reference Rent), what proportion of the stock will be offered at the new affordable rent, or if they even introduce it at all.
Eligible tenants paying such rents would still generally be below the ceiling for full reimbursement through Housing Benefit even after the DWP reforms.
I recognise that these proposals have proved controversial with some people, and I am keen to listen to views. That’s where you come in. The Social Housing paper published today both provides information on our plans, and solicits views as to how we can improve them. The closing date is 17th January at 5pm.
These proposals won’t end the housing problem overnight, we understand that. But they are a positive first step in the right direction. We do have to make some difficult choices, I think we all recognise that, but Liberal Democrats in government are already on the way to delivering more affordable housing than Labour or the Tories managed on their own.
I would strongly urge you to read the consultation document, and to submit a response. With your help, we can make sure the proposals accurately reflect the needs of our local communities. I look forward to reading the continuation of this debate when the responses hit my desk in a few weeks time!
You can find the consultation paper, “Local decisions: a fairer future for social housing” at the Communities and Local Government website here.
Andrew Stunell is the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government