The future of council housing

How can councils, once again, deliver the homes that are needed across the country?

During the height of council building, in the 1950s, councils built on average around 147,000 homes a year. In the past 10 years councils have averaged building around 1,400 homes a year. This is due to a number of Government restrictions and lack of funding available.

The big question we are asking is how can councils, once again, deliver the homes that are needed across the country?

Watch and listen to our #CouncilHousing100 videos and soundbites, and read our think pieces below to hear what politicians, academics, and sector experts think is the answer.



Think pieces

John Boughton (Municipal Dreams) | Meeting present and future needs

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 benefitting all – spending which represents, in every sense, a value, not a cost.