Comment Blog 14 November, 2018

One size doesn’t fit all: A new era for social housing

There is a new era of council housebuilding underway. Local authorities like Camden are building award-winning council homes and testing new construction methods. We are building up our in-house capacity to lead and manage major development programmes. Last month, local authorities won a major concession from the Government, who committed to lift the borrowing cap after years of campaigning.

We are building to meet the need we see every day in our communities, with over 1 million people on social housing waiting lists nationally, and our surgeries packed with people facing homelessness. Young people trying to find a home today are the first generation who are unlikely to achieve the same level of housing stability as their parents – more likely to be evicted by a private landlord, less likely to access a social rented tenancy, and less likely to be able to afford to buy. This is a national scandal, and one that local councils have a crucial role in solving.

In Camden, where the average price of a house is now almost £820,000, and the average rent of a two-bed property is £612 per month more than the maximum amount of housing benefit, the lack of accommodation forces many people to live in permanent housing instability – sleeping on sofas or living in homes that are unsuitable or unsafe.

This is a situation that is only likely to get worse as housebuilding consistently fails to meet the demand for new homes. Councils can and have addressed national housing crises in the past, however Government has failed to give councils like Camden the powers or the funding to build new homes at the rate we need.

In Camden we haven’t been waiting for Government to change its approach - we’ve embarked on our largest housebuilding programme in a generation. Our Community Investment Programme (CIP) will deliver 1,100 council homes, at council rents. We are also aiming to deliver up to 500 Camden Living Rent homes key workers like nurses, teachers and those on lower incomes.  This is an ambitious target and we are at the same time providing much-needed new investment in our communities, whether through new schools or community centres.

In Camden we build with our tenants, an approach we recently followed during the award-winning rebuilding of Bacton Low Rise, a Camden estate in Gospel Oak where residents led on discussions with the developer, took design courses and helped architects create the best scheme for current and future residents. We are taking these lessons forward on the nearby Wendling and West Kentish Town estates where we have employed estate residents themselves to lead consultations and the conversations about what should happen. We expect residents here to be among the first in London to be balloted on estate regeneration.

As well as the homes we are pledged to deliver, we could go even further. Should both of these estates decide to proceed, and other smaller and larger sites be possible, we could deliver thousands of additional new homes, delivering well-designed, welcoming and vibrant communities for the future.

Lifting the borrowing cap will remove just one of the blocks on house-building. However, it doesn’t change the fact that grant funding for social housing has been slashed and we lack the subsidy to build the number of social rent units we need. Borrowing alone cannot fund the full costs of new social housing, and councils have to find the shortfall from their own limited funds or other grants.

Government must now look at urgently changing the Right to Buy, increasing grant funding, launching a Help to Build fund to build the next generation of council homes, and giving councils more power around land assembly. They need to end the welfare policies driving homelessness and give us powers to regulate the private rented sector to properly respond to our local situations. If we truly want to see a change, we must adopt an approach that treats social housing like any other vital part of the country’s infrastructure: as a valuable institution in its own right, deserving of strategic investment, and not just a route to home ownership.

With so much scope for improvement, it is disappointing that the Social Housing Green Paper failed to seize the opportunity for radical change. If Whitehall is out of ideas, it could look to dispense with the one-size-fits-all approach to policymaking and harness the expertise of councils at a local level, devolving greater power to them to deliver the homes our country now so desperately needs.

Georgia Gould is Leader of Camden London Borough Council.

This blog is sixth and final edition of our Reformer housing series.