Stephen Williams writes: Social housing stock rises back above 4 million

Houses being builtWhen the Liberal Democrats entered government in 2010, it was clear we had inherited a housing crisis. House prices and private sector rents were becoming more and more unaffordable. House building had slowed to its lowest level since the 1920s and social housing waiting lists had soared to 1.7 million households. Added to that, successive governments had also let the social housing stock wither on the vine, with 1.5 million homes lost by Labour and Conservative governments alike since 1979.

I know that if we are to solve the housing crisis, we need to reverse the decline in social homes and build more. That is why I was delighted recently to see new statistics published by my department (DCLG) showing that the number of social homes has increased for the fifth year running, taking the overall stock back above the 4 million mark for the first time in a decade.

The total number of homes rented from councils or housing associations now stands at 4,013,000, up by 47,000 since the Lib Dems entered government in 2010. This is in part down to our affordable homes programme that will see 170,000 new social and affordable homes delivered over four years to 2015.

This is a good first step, but there is still much more work to do. House building rates are improving, but are still short of keeping up with the number of new households that form each year. At our Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in 2012, our policy motion ‘Decent Homes For All’, set out an aim of building up to 300,000 homes a year to meet demand. If we want to meet that ambitious target, more work will need to be done to boost supply, but it won’t happen overnight.

The next step is to increase our social and affordable building rate further. That is why we insisted on a new £3.3bn affordable homes programme in last year’s spending review that will see 165,000 new affordable homes delivered over three years from 2015. At an average of 55,000 homes a year, this will be the fastest building rate for 20 years.

Although I’m pleased that we’re getting on with the job of building more homes, I won’t be satisfied until we’ve done enough to end the housing crisis and guarantee that everyone is able to afford a secure, warm (and environmentally-friendly) home to live in. But I believe that we can still be proud that the first government for over thirty years to be increasing the stock of social housing is the one in which Liberal Democrats are playing such an important role in.

* Stephen Williams was the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West 2005-2015 and was Minister for Communities in the Coalition Government.

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  • “That is why we insisted on a new £3.3bn affordable homes programme in last year’s spending review that will see 165,000 new affordable homes delivered over three years from 2015”

    Are those what people used to call Council Houses? Or are these new build private sector homes which are targeted at 1st time buyers?

  • Can these figures be broken down by number of bedrooms against the demand?

    As the spare room benefit reduction is also a coalition policy I take it new homes are being built in line with requirements to ensure no family is housed in too large a property…

  • Chris Manners 11th Mar '14 - 4:47pm

    Funny, no space to mention all these council homes being sold at a discount….

    “The total number of homes rented from councils or housing associations now stands at 4,013,000”

    Renting from a housing association doesn’t mean it’s affordable in any meaningful sense of the word. See here for instance:

    It’s obviously good that the market rent paid on those goes back into housing, and the government can take credit for encouraging it. But that’s not affordable or social housing being provided.

  • A Social Liberal 11th Mar '14 - 4:50pm

    No Paul, what you are referring to is social housing. Affordable housing as defined here

    Note that this government has introduced ‘intermediate affordable housing’ which includes hosing “at prices and rents above those of social rent but below market price or rents, and which meet the criteria set out above”. This is the rate the government is trying to force HAs and councils to adopt in order to replace the reduction of grant to those organisations.

  • A Social Liberal 11th Mar '14 - 4:54pm

    No Steve, there is no policy.

    I am on the local panel of one of our local HAs. We have just had a briefing from the demographics expert of our district council who said that the largest influx of people into our area is coming from Leeds and Bradford and at just about retirement age. Even so, builders are still building a mix which is heavy on multi-bedroom housing.

  • This is a small step forward, but will it be overtaken by the Deregulation Bill, which makes it even easier to sell a council home to its tenant?

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Mar '14 - 5:41pm

    “successive governments had also let the social housing stock wither on the vine, with 1.5 million homes lost by Labour and Conservative governments alike since 1979.”

    Uhuh. Though of course, the Labour government did slash the discount (=bribe) on right-to-buy, whereas one of this government’s priorities was to increase it massively, thereby ensuring that the problem will get worse not better. The fact that Blair’s government was too chicken to abolish that dreadful, destructive policy is no excuse for the coalition’s hiking it back to Thatcherite levels. It’s good that a government minister is willing to even mention social housing as part of the solution and not just as a problem, but the parsnips remain unbuttered.

  • Stephen Williams displays a positive attitude to building homes for those in need, and that is to be welcomed.

    It is not clear if his statistics relate to UK, England and Wales or just England. I do not read every DCLG press release but if anyone can provide a link to the one quoted it might be interesting to see any further breakdown of the numbers. I do hope some of them are what people used to call council houses. Anyone who saw the recent Ch4 News exposé of dubious social landlords would feel more at home with a traditional council house. Council housing departments we’re not the most wonderful organisations in the world but there were brilliant compared with the present day absentee landlords who rip off the housing benefit system and the tenants both at the same time.

    As I have said before in LDV, decades ago when the UK was much poorer and had a much smaller economy, councils were able to build thousands of homes fit for families and actually improve people’s living conditions . We can do it again. We can do it at a much more rapid pace than 55,000 per year. All that is needed is the political will.

  • Chris Manners 11th Mar '14 - 5:56pm

    A Social Liberal- good posts, thanks.

    It would seem to me an absolute no brainer to build lots of social housing aimed at retirees. They’ve rightly been exempted from the “Bedroom Tax” but that means they remain in their houses, as the biggest underoccupiers around.

  • @ A Social Liberal
    I thought not, let’s all be proud of building social housing that some of the most poor will be penalised for living in… The fairer society in action I suppose.

  • Helen Dudden 11th Mar '14 - 7:59pm

    For sometime, I have questioned the building of homes. Do we pursue the sheltered housing sector with one beds for those over 55 years of age, or do we have a more liberal view of who has what?

    Not all those of 55 years of age will need the support of a warden, and the pull cords that in some areas tenants will have to pay for themselves. This area is also rising.

    I understand, there are those who can’t afford to pay the so called “Affordable Rents” and are getting into debt. Not to forget those still caught up in the “bedroom tax” that was voted for by your Party. A measure, that I am not sure, what it was meant to achieve, with the shortage of housing.

  • Helen, it would help if we built housing at the same rate as net migration. Unfortunately the Conservatives and the CPRE will try to block any building on greenbelt land. We should be looking to build about half a million dwellings per year to catch up with demand, and to supply all the immigrants. Immigrants boost the economy tremendously as they work harder than British people. Maybe to boost the economy even more we could increase net migration to say half a million per year and build say a million dwellings per year with the money that the economy benefits from.

    In fact thinking about it, there are plenty of empty fields, so why not build entire cities from scratch? It would be quicker and more efficient than tacking on a few hundred houses here and there to existing villages. Has anybody worked out the figures, if say there were a net migration of 1 million per annum, would it pay for say 1.5 million dwellings to be built per annum? These are illustrative figures. We cope just fine with 200,000 per annum, why not be ambitious and scale it up?

    At the moment there are too many people living in inadequate housing, cold and damp, not at all healthy. If we could really boost the economy eventually we can catch up with the housing demand, and the oldest and worst properties could be bulldozed and new eco friendly ones built in place of them.

    As our economy is doing so much better that Italy, Spain etc, we are attracting more arrivals from those countries. As Vince Cable has pointed out, the increase in the net migration figure is an excellent sign that things are going well. If his age were not against him, I would certainly propose him as a replacement for Clegg.

  • Joe King wrote:

    “Unfortunately the Conservatives and the CPRE will try to block any building on greenbelt land.”

    Why “unfortunately”? And why just the Conservatives and the CPRE? Do Liberal Democrats, Labourites and UKIPers not support the Green Belt, too, along with almost all the people who live in and around it? The Green Belt has protected the North Downs, the Chilterns and parts of the Weald from concrete. Why would anyone want to get rid of it? Were you aware that the last serious attempt to relax the Green Belt was in 1986, by a Conservative government? The public uproar at what was no more than a tentative proposal was of such ferocity that it was very quickly withdrawn. Proposals for an “Elmbridge Mall” and 3,000 houses in East Horsley mercifully never got off the drawing-board.

    “In fact thinking about it, there are plenty of empty fields, so why not build entire cities from scratch?”

    Well, why not, indeed? But where? You have to find the right sites, by which I mean places where the environmental and cultural damage will be the least. I have mentioned Thetford Forest in a previous post. Large tracts of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire also come to mind.

    “It would be quicker and more efficient than tacking on a few hundred houses here and there to existing villages.”

    That was the very attitude that Stalin and Khrushchev took when they created new cities entirely composed of highrise flats.

    “At the moment there are too many people living in inadequate housing, cold and damp, not at all healthy.”

    Are there? Most of that stock was eliminated in the 1960s. True, there are landlords who specialise in grotty property and DSS tenants, but they are the exception. The housing that is being renewed today is the very stuff that was built to replace the inadequate housing that was bulldozed half a century ago. Go and look at the Aylesbury and Heygate Estates, and you will find 1960s flats replaced by 2010s flats.

  • @Joe King – I take it your comment was a joke!

    To give a sense of scale of what you are going on about, Milton Keynes is intended to house 250,000 (ie. roughly equivalent to the current level of net migration) within a 34 sq mile area, giving a population density of ~6700 per sq mile. Buckinghamshire is ~724 sq miles, so (ignoring existing development) it could theoretically provide housing for 21 Milton Keynes, ie. 5.25M people. As a net migration figure of 250,000 is at the high end of the ONS projections, we can expect the population to increase by circa 16M by 2037, hence if we seriously believe that this is going to happen we need to cover an area three times the size of Buckinghamshire in urban development, by 2037.

    The reason for using Milton Keynes as my example is not only is it a useful size mathematically, but that it’s density is tending towards a “garden city” (even though Milton Keynes has a lot of green space, it isn’t a “garden city”) and it also has sufficient industry and commerce now for it to be a net creator of jobs within it’s area, so goes some way towards the “sustainable cities” objective. Also any one can look Milton Keynes (and Buckinghamshire) up on a map and get a real sense of relative scale of the size of the challenge.

    However, instead we could totally redevelop Greater London to increase the population density from ~13,500 per sq mile to ~40,500 per sq mile and require no new land and for it to still be less densely populated than Paris at 55,000 per sq mile…

    So our need for land is largely dependent upon how much we want to go down the “garden city” path and create urban sprawl compared to making better use of existing urban land.

  • In a way Roland is correct to propose redeveloping London to give a higher density. However the infrastructure is old and decaying. It is far more efficient in construction and infrastructure terms to start from scratch.

    Yes of course the new cities that I propose must have worthwhile and productive sources of employment within them. Sustainable cities is an important concept which we must buy into. Garden cities have the risk of simply being dormitory areas with all the traffic and pollution which this implies. Again I find myself ad odds with Nick Clegg, he was promoting garden cities recently. All very well for the metropolitan elite to suggest these, they are just impractical.

    Ed Miliband has suggested building a new town on the Ebbsfleet flood plain! He is obviously nuts!

    We should more or less accept that there will be a rise of sea levels, so we should stop building in low level areas. For example it is completely stupid to be building on the low level land south of Chichester, we should instead be building on the South Downs near the Goodwood racecourse, by way of example. I can imagine a whole ribbon of new cities all along the South Downs, for the displaced populations of Portsmouth, Southampton, Chichester, Brighton etc. Even London is going to flood more and more, the Thames barrier will soon be unable to cope. Perhaps Parliament should plan to relocate say to Winchester, where there was historically a seat of government, and put the parliament buildings high up above flood level.

    The ONS keep on revising upwards their population projections, I have no faith whatsoever in their projections. We should be building far more houses, and to do this in a timely manner. Our economy will thrive and grow if we simply accept the need for vastly more housing to be built, and we can invite and encourage far more young and talented people to come to the UK. It will be a virtuous circle, not something to be dismayed by.

  • In contrast to Joe I see no real problem with building on land liable to flooding, particularly as it is likely we won’t be able to reliability use the land for other economic activity! The only real challenge is to build houses and infrastructure that can cope with being regularly flooded, which naturally isn’t the way we’ve tended to build in this country…

    Yes the ONS keep revising their projections, but that is the nature of the beast – the ONS don’t make government policy they merely project known trends and effects of government policy based on what may be regarded as reasonable assumptions at the time any given projection is made. It is quite interesting reading old projections and seeing which assumptions were valid and which changes (such as the levels of migration we have been witnessing in recent years) were totally unforeseen.

    Also we shouldn’t overlook the simple fact that our current population is unsustainable as is our lifestyle; as we are beginning to realise, our lifestyle has within a very small space of time become highly dependent upon energy imported from Russia… There is no virtuous circle in an ever growing population and increasing dependence on ever increasing imports and consumption of resources, there is only one outcome, catastrophic failure, the only question is when?

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 12th Mar '14 - 11:11am

    @Roland The idea of building in areas which will flood is an interesting proposal. Can we build on landfill sites? And what type of landfill would be acceptable upon which to build?

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 12th Mar '14 - 11:22am

    The idea of building in areas which will flood is an interesting proposal. Can we take the idea further and build on landfill sites which are above water levels, including those which could be in floodable areas later? And what type of landfill would be acceptable upon which to build? As modern housing is intended not to last more than a set number of decades, future generations will need to assess rising sea levels again and again.
    We should not exempt villages from adding housing stock because the drift from villages to towns is connected to the need for schools which need larger populations than many villages currently contain. Adding new housing in villages gives the national workforce more options than moving to towns and cities, preserves village schools, helps village communities to thrive, but does need better research on future needs than might be available now .

  • Joe King – “Immigrants boost the economy tremendously as they work harder than British people.

    This really is rather offensive. I hope you won’t be repeating this dodgy assertion in a focus leaflet anytime soon. Britons work as hard as anyone when properly trained and rewarded. If we have an educational system that mostly just rewards academic achievement and really doesn’t work for a significant minority whose fault is that? If we reward CEOs who asset strip their companies millions of pounds but tell the workers to take less because they’re not worth it, then what do you expect?

    Also it’s only true to the extent that immigrants are a younger demographic so there are far fewer of them drawing pensions etc. That will reverse strongly as they age, retire and require more medical interventions.

    BTW the purpose of politics should not be merely to “boost the economy” but to improve the quality of life in the round. Some of that has to do with income of course but there is also a quality of life dimension that won’t be achieved by concreting South East England.

  • GF, employers prefer them. Did you watch the programme on immigration a few weeks ago? The strawberry farmer could not get any local workers so had to hire eastern Europeans. Many of our local ‘talent’ would prefer to draw the dole. You can see them slobbing around town centres during working hours.

    Roland, are you crazy? We have to anticipate the flooding and build on higher ground. It is noticeable that houses built in the 1990s and 2000s gets flooded in various places, but houses built in the 70s and 80s does not. What went wrong I think was Labour. They are still at it with Ebbsfleet:,%20Kent&lang=_e&layerGroups=default&distance=&textonly=off

  • Re: building on areas prone to flood

    There are two aspects to this, firstly the buildings themselves. This isn’t really a big issue, if you design and build accordingly – we only need to look at some of the newer developments in the Netherlands to see some ideas in action and to take a look at the Somerset levels where some newer properties had been built with consideration given to flooding .
    The more challenging part is the infrastructure ie. utilities and access, so that people don’t need to be ‘rescued’ from their own homes. But again some lateral thinking shows that the way to approach the problem is to turn it on it’s head, namely treat flooding as ‘normal’ and the absence of water as a beneficial exception. But fundamentally it is an engineering problem and one that many round the world will also be facing, so a good opportunity to develop UK engineering leadership.

    Re: Building on landfill

    Well this already happens (as does building on old clay and chalk workings …) – there is a lot of old landfill sites in Milton Keynes! There are two problems with landfill sites, settlement and gas emissions, which are more of an issue with more recent landfill sites. To me the real question with landfill sites is whether we should in fact be mining them and so reduce their bulk and speed up their settlement, but that also brings up the whole issue of waste incinerators…

    As for anticipating flooding, perhaps now is the time to consider moving the City of London – I doubt many of the various financial institutions sub-basement computer suites are fully flood proof…

  • tony Rowland
    Building on land fill sites has been going on for years. the burning off of methane is an eye opening sight

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