With the government's consultation on a new regeneration framework focusing on measuring regeneration by results, a joined-up yet localised approach to housing policy is the best way to boost outcomes
Last year, the government put housing at the heart of its new policy programme. It outlined an ambitious vision for 3 million new homes by 2020, building 240,000 each year up to 2016 of which 75,000 would be social and low-cost housing. The hope was that this would increase affordability, particularly for first-time buyers, and end the boom-and-bust housing cycle.
This revised approach saw housing as a driver for improvements across the policy spectrum. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reports talked up sustainable communities and the importance of understanding housing in a holistic policy agenda. The Hills review confirmed concerns that bad planning and unexpected policy consequences were turning social housing into the tenure of last resort, transforming once-aspirational housing estates into “ghettos” of deprivation and exclusion. The government is now rethinking social housing, tenure mix, benefits and links between homes and jobs. Other papers pushed forward thinking on the way housing could support our environmental and economic ambitions.
A year later, the credit crunch means we will be lucky to see 100,000 homes started this year. Developers are shedding jobs, land and share price value. Regeneration projects are stalling and the Local Government Association has suggested that the slowdown could increase housing waiting lists to over 2 million. Outputs and targets are doomed to fail and may undermine the progress made in connected policy areas. In this context, housing outcomes take on a new significance.
Local authorities will be key players in this outcome-based agenda. The outcomes we seek - appropriate, affordable homes anchored in sustainable, prosperous communities - require us to look at housing in a way that feels unfamiliar to some central policy makers. Councils are best placed to understand the impact that local housing markets have on and within different neighbourhoods, the way housing connects to jobs and cultural opportunities, education and community safety.
Local authorities will be key players in this outcome-based agenda. Councils are best placed to understand the impact that local housing markets have on and within different neighbourhoods
We are beginning to see much closer relationships between housing partners and other local services. Housing associations spend millions on employment services and some now sponsor city academies. Registered social landlords work closely with councils to draw up housing strategies, and the new regulator will strengthen these links further. Similarly, some developers are revisiting their business models, creating longer-term partnerships with local communities that move beyond a bricks-and-mortar offer. We could also see increased private-sector interest in social housing or private rental stock, which both represent stable income streams and long-term business opportunities.
Councils themselves are leading the way, reversing decades of government policies that encouraged local authorities to distance themselves from direct housing intervention. Some councils are co-locating housing services and job centres, others are piloting schemes to end the benefits trap and several are developing ventures with the private sector to build and manage portfolios of community-centred housing. Some are even developing small-scale direct mortgage provision, though nothing on the scale of the sixties.
This new, localised approach could be the key to seeing us through the next few years. In future, the housing organisations that prosper will be those that successfully bring together innovative housing finance models with a commitment to local communities and an understanding of how housing can be used to catalyse other community improvements. There are suggestions that the new Homes and Communities Agency will favour these organisations through funding allocations.
This does not mean we should let our thinking drift away from the supply of new homes. The credit crunch will not last forever. The UK obsession with homeownership will persist, and social and demographic trends mean that we will continue to need more and more affordable homes. Underlying demand will remain.
We are beginning to see much closer relationships between housing partners and other local services. Similarly, some developers are revisiting their business models, creating longer-term partnerships with local communities
With that in mind, the Crosby review of housing finance, due to report into the pre-budget, is looking at how the government might reignite the mortgage and associated securities market, restoring consumer investor confidence and slowing the decline of the housing market.
The recent DCLG publication, Facing the Housing Challenge: Action Today, Innovation for Tomorrow, suggested that the government may be considering public-sector mortgages or US-style direct mortgage interventions to deliver this kick-start. It also announced the first raft of public-private housing partnerships - local housing companies - funding for community improvements to support housing growth, and a rent-to-buy scheme that could begin to change the way we view and utilise private rental stock in this country.
At NLGN we welcome these positive steps, not least because we recommended similar interventions in our own report, Good House Keeping?, earlier this year.
The credit crunch is unlikely to slow any time soon. What we do in the meantime might dictate the outcomes we see for the next decades or more. Acting locally, using local government innovation to drive creative new solutions to development and regeneration, joining up housing interventions with a range of partners and other policy areas - these will all be vital to getting this right.
Anthony Brand is principal researcher at New Local Government Network