Social housing is a catastrophe. Scrapping building targets has only made it worse
All of our houses are too old. But now we have a golden chance to build, build, build - starting with social housing
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. So said Winston Churchill, successfully arguing for the House of Commons to be rebuilt exactly as it was before Nazi Luftwaffe bombs struck in 1941.
We all have an affinity with buildings: they are places of trust and places of safety, of some of life's great moments.
In short, buildings matter.
But a bombshell report released last December by affordable housing body the National Housing Federation found that, simply, our social housing is too expensive, too poorly-managed, too scarce and, most alarmingly, too old.
They are right. At its core, all of Britain’s houses are too old. Nearly three quarters of homes (73%) are older than the average 40.6 year old Briton. If our homes were people, 40% of them would already have a state pension – and 20% of them would open their post to find a 100th birthday letter from the King.
No group feels the impact of Britain's decrepit houses more than those occupying the 4.4 million homes owned by housing associations and the state. Government data confirms 5% of all homes in the social sector - potentially as many as 220,000 in England alone - are likely to suffer from mould problems, twice the rate of owner-occupied homes. One such mould-stricken home was occupied by two-year-old Aawab Ishak, who died in 2020 - the first death to be attributed in part to a build up of untreated black mould and damp in his family’s Rochdale Boroughwide Housing association flat.
Aawab’s case has sparked a spate of stories of similar unthinkable suffering: Last week it was reported one family had taken the extreme measure of wearing Covid masks in their sleep to protect themselves from mould ascending the walls of their 1960s Hammersmith and Fulham Council flat.
The council, which was last year found to be the worst mould offender in the UK with a damp rate more than three times that of any other local authority, had repeatedly failed to act and only moved the family out of danger when reports highlighted their residents’ plight directly.
Whilst councils like Hammersmith and Fulham must bear some responsibility - they were ordered to pay £8,785 to 15 victims of maladministration in 2021 - they are also one part in a wider social housing supply collapse that has seen local authority-owned dwellings fall by over half - to under two million - since 1994.
It has left millions of families trapped inside archaic, elderly housing , with successive governments kicking the can down the road.
Nowhere is the decline in construction felt more than in London, where under 1400 affordable properties were added to the market in the first two quarters of this year - a 74% reduction from the first half of 2012.
Instead of building, the state has increasingly relied on private enterprises, who last year built 82% of all new homes, to undertake construction projects whilst pocketing a healthy profit from inflated, record-high house prices.
But with house prices falling at their fastest rate in 14 years, a white paper by the Centre for Policy Studies predicts a 20% downturn in house building activity could cost 400,000 jobs in the construction sector, further submerging millions into an extended housing crisis.
It comes as Housing Secretary Michael Gove last week officially scrapped the long-held 300,000 homes a year target following the threat of backbench Conservative rebellion, in a move which left housing experts confused and concerned.
James Forrester, Managing Director of Stripe Property Group, concluded scrapping the target was “a dumb move”.
He added: “To remove those targets is to allow the UK’s requirement to dangle in the wind and we now have even less chance as a nation of providing adequate dwelling numbers.”
Former Chancellor George Osborne had hinted that hitting the target at all would require the state to once again become a powerhouse building force. But this was the case for many years: In 1977, the last time the UK hit the now defunct 300,000 homes a year target, local authorities built and subsequently owned 145,000 of them, two thousand more than privateers.
But, 45 years later, state-owned new housing has collapsed to just 2,500 local authority homes a year, and, of course, we are nowhere near the housing target.
Wait. What happened? Where did all the diggers go? In the early years of the Thatcher administration, councils, saddled with housing debt, were ordered to sell homes at 80% of their market price under the Right to Buy scheme. Millions obliged, and, since, median house prices have soared from £15,000 in 1980 to £285,000 last month - making ownership over 200% less affordable than the last time the housing target was attained.
The central question at the time asked whether renting a home from a council was a satisfactory way to live, to which Mrs Thatcher’s eventual conclusion was ‘no’. So some 1.4 million homes were sold, leaving councils without the ability to replace them with anything more modern.
But the looming possibility of a sustained slump in house prices is creating a near-insurmountable case for the Government to recreate the 1960s building spree, snap up land at lower prices, and operate new, affordable, local authority-led developments.
In the 60s, local authorities constructed 1.5 million homes - repeating the feat would return social housing levels to pre-Right to Buy, greatly alleviating pressure from a neglected segment of the housing market.
Whilst 1.5 million is a far dream - just like affording a house in London - building new social housing is the most direct route to creating a sustainable housing supply capable of matching the strenuous demand of an increasing number of families struggling to make rent.
And an increasing number of people at the cutting edge of housing say the argument is starting to make more sense: Housing charity Shelter say a sustained program would "kickstart the economy, create jobs, help rebuild communities and the country."
There are barriers, of course: Houses are still, to put it mildly, not for sale in flat pack format from Ikea - and the immense cost of construction would require the sort of significant borrowing from public bodies that ended Liz Truss' premiership altogether.
But the long-term boost to GDP, and the opportunity to create a higher-quality, sustainable housing market, will pay back the investment in droves.
Newer homes are significantly less likely to suffer mould and damp issues plaguing the current social housing scene. One in one hundred dwellings built since 1990 report damp problems, meaning the problem - disproportionately affecting unmonitored social housing - could be improved, so no child in the shoes of Aawab Ishak could suffer again.
There is one ever-present issue that will not give over as easily: NIMBYs.
The ‘Not In My Backyard’ charge of the planning permission brigade - led by North London MP Theresa Villiers - have railed against what they perceive as “overdevelopment”, warning new building projects will devalue the housing market.
Like a reverse Robin Hood, NIMBYs like Villers, whose amendment, backed by over 100 MPs caused Gove to cave, have inflated the requirements for low-income families to be eligible for what poor social housing facilities there are, a problem which can only be solved by the new dwellings their incessant campaigning continually derails.
Their ‘work’ means the capital consistently misses its 93,000 home-a-year targets by nearly two-thirds, clocking in a ten year average of just 38,000.
The stat touted by building companies is that every 100,000 new homes boosts GDP by 1%. Whilst the accuracy of that exact figure is up for debate, new social houses would deliver far more than an economic boost. Falling house and land prices present a once in a generation chance to build, build, build - and the Government must lead the way .
It means Rishi Sunak's Government is facing a simple choice: Party or country? If he truly wants to leave an indelible mark on the standard of living for low-income families, he must take a flamethrower to planning restrictions, and regenerate social housing - whatever the NIMBYs say.