#CouncilsCan: looking to the future

With the right powers and resources, councils can do so much more.


In the upcoming Spending Round, councils need financial certainty to allow them to continue to lead their local areas, improve residents’ lives, reduce demand for public services and save money for the taxpayer.

#CouncilsCan do so much more but they need financial reassurance from the Government.

#CouncilsCan | Meeting the present and future housing need

Last year we built 6463 new social rent homes. To meet present and future housing needs, we need to be building around 100,000. That might seem a tall order but, in reality, there’s no mystery in how it’s achieved. We need to look to the models of the past – to an era when we were regularly building 150,000 council homes annually – and to abandon the failed and misguided policies of recent years.

We must, above all, allow councils to build; firstly, by allowing them to borrow. The lifting of borrowing caps in 2018 was a big step in this direction and a large number of local authorities – 94 percent of those with retained housing stock – plan to use this power to borrow to invest in new homes.  The Public Works Loans Board provides, as it did during the great post-war council housing boom, the means by which the capital required can be cheaply accessed.

Secondly, we must provide more generous grant funding to encourage councils to build. The £2 billion additional funding for new social housing announced by the Government last year was a welcome advance but is inadequate to the challenge faced. We must increase this support in the understanding that a small boost from the public purse pays for itself many times over in the savings it generates – in health, wellbeing and community and, in tangible financial terms, in housing benefit and welfare payments. 

Thirdly, we must reform our broken land laws which see councils forced to purchase land at exorbitant sums, based on its maximum potential future development value – a double whammy that increases the cost of those affordable homes which might be built and incentivises the development of high-value luxury homes. There is now broad political support for a reform that would pay landowners a fair price for land based on the value of the housing scheme needed rather than the one imagined by speculative developers.

Fourthly, reform of the Right to Buy which has seen the number of social rent homes reduced by 1.5 million since 1980. Around 40 per cent of homes bought under Right to Buy are now in the private rental sector. It has been abolished by devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. If that political choice is currently unacceptable in the English context, we must at the very least ensure that councils receive the full receipts from Right to Buy sales and that that money is re-invested in the social rent homes of the future.

Finally, we need not only to empower councils to build but to equip them to do so. Council resources have been enormously depleted by the free market dogmas ruling British politics since the 1980s. We need to revive the expertise and professionalism of the public sector and councils need good in-house architects and planners, clever lawyers and smart accountants to redress a balance of forces which has been so drastically tilted in favour of private enterprise. If public-private partnerships are to persist, we need to ensure they deliver for the public interest.  

All this is cost-effective and it represents far better value for money than the failed experiments in Help to Buy, shared ownership and so-called affordable rent housing which have provided billions in private profit and precious little housing for those in greatest need.

Underlying all this is the need to restore to popular consciousness the progressive belief that once governed public policy in this country: the principle that intelligent state expenditure on housing is an investment in a brighter future benefiting all – spending which represents, in every sense, a value, not a cost.

John Boughton - Municipal Dreams

 #CouncilsCan | Is the future bright for council housing?

melanie rees

At their high point as landlords in 1975, councils in England were providing settled, affordable, good quality homes for almost five million households. The figure is now just over 1.6 million.

A combination of factors, including Right to Buy and the large-scale transfer of homes from councils to housing associations, has led to this enormous reduction. And, along with those homes, it feels like we’ve lost the pride that we once had in a public good that housed a significant proportion of the population. Today, the housing, and the people who live in it, are often unfairly stereotyped and stigmatised. Renting from the council or a housing association is increasingly seen as a last resort for people who can’t afford to buy or to rent privately.

But I believe we can get back to a place where we are as proud of our ‘social’ housing as we are of our NHS and our education system - here’s how.

  • Social housing should be there for anyone who wants it, for as long as they want it – but we need a lot more of it for that to happen. Research shows we need 90,000 new homes at the lowest ‘social’ rents each year and that’s why CIH has joined forces with the National Housing Federation, Shelter, Crisis and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England to call on Government to increase grant funding for homes at social rents to £12.8 billion per year. If this sounds like a lot of money, it’s worth considering three things:
    • This is an investment not a ‘cost’.
    • Government already has a £51 billion budget for housing but only 21 per cent of it is ear-marked for affordable housing with the rest going to schemes like Help to Buy - so it could reprioritise.
    • This investment would solve our housing crisis in just 10 years.
  • #CouncilsCan play a huge part. As well as enabling others to build new homes, some councils were already starting to build themselves before the borrowing caps were lifted in October 2018. Many more are doing so now. But they could do even more if Government would allow them to keep and use all the proceeds from Right to Buy sales to reinvest in new homes. CIH is also calling on Government to suspend the scheme as, at the current rate of building – fewer than 6,500 home at social rents in 2017/18 – we’re just not keeping pace.

We have to tackle stigma and stereotyping. The causes are many and complex but include:

  • Housing policy and political rhetoric on all sides which privileges home ownership over other housing options.
  • Print, broadcast and social media which portrays social housing tenants in a negative way – in Ipsos MORI polling for our 2018 Rethinking social housing research 65 per cent agreed the negative view of social housing tenants is unfair.
  • As a housing professional, it hurts me to say this, but we don’t do ourselves any favours either. It was painful to read tenants’ experiences of poor service, rudeness and discrimination in last year’s social housing green paper. With good intentions we may describe tenants as ‘needy’ and ‘vulnerable’ which only adds to the problem. And are poor standards of management and maintenance sending negative signals too? Social housing is an amazing thing but let’s not be complacent.
  • We all need to talk about the positive role that social housing plays in a way that doesn’t patronise or ‘other’ the people living in it. The Benefit to Society campaign is doing a great job of this, including working with the National Union of Journalists to produce the Fair Press For Tenants guide, and it’s something we can all get behind.

Together we and #CouncilsCan make sure that social housing has a very bright future.

Melanie Rees FCIH
Head of Policy and External Affairs
Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH)