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09 February 2017

Opinion: The Government's White Paper on Housing

Our Chief Executive, Mike Andrews, responds to the Government’s plans for the housing sector.

On 7th February 2017 the Government published its much-heralded housing White Paper which it chose to call ‘Fixing our broken housing market’.

The document is very good on identifying the problems the country has with lack of affordable housing. It is good that our Government fully accepts we have a problem and sees it as a major priority to tackle. Accepting you have a problem is always a good start on the road to recovery. We shouldn’t downplay this acceptance, which represents a major shift in thinking when you consider that housing or the lack of it has not really featured as a major talking point at either of the last two general elections.

It is good that the Government see housing associations as part of the solution (last year we were part of the problem), and linking back to the Autumn Statement there is new money to increase the supply of housing of all tenure.

This support from Government does however come with a real threat. We are now expected to step up to the plate and get building more homes. The implication is clear that we will not be forgiven by the politicians if as a sector we don’t deliver. At NCHA we are already committed to building 300 new homes every year and we help others to build new homes so we are doing as much as we can. It is clear however, that we will not be allowed to take the foot off the pedal, not that we ever intended to anyway. It is also encouraging that the Government seems to have slightly rowed back from its obsession with home ownership, which will allow NCHA to continue to bid for and build homes for affordable rent as well as for shared ownership.

The document also refers to working with associations to develop a better market renting product and whilst through Lets Select we do own market rented property, we do not have any plans to build any more, so this initiative is of limited opportunity for us.

Unfortunately the Government have not used the White Paper  to relax the 1% rent cut, imposed on us until 2020, which does impact significantly on our ability to invest in homes and services and it also doesn’t tell us what will happen to rent policy after 2020 apart from a promise to consult with the sector on any post-2020 rent settlement.

The document also gives us no further insight into the Government’s intention over the Local Housing Allowance post 2019 other than the fact that consultation is ongoing. This means we still have uncertainty around the income for our supported housing schemes.

It of course also would not be the Government if the White Paper  didn’t again re-affirm its expectation that we all improve our efficiency with savings being targeted to new housebuilding. For NCHA this means continued prudence in our spending and more emphasis on lean working to deliver our efficiencies and cost savings.

It also wouldn’t be a Government strategy if we didn’t have a name change to get used to. The Homes and Communities Agency is being split (again) with a new Regulator being created (names as yet undecided) whilst the investment arm will from later in the year be known as Homes England. Good business for brand designers and signwriters.

There is a lot more in the White Paper on the role of Local Authorities and planning processes and an idea around an incentive to encourage elderly homeowners to downsize (a sort of bedroom tax credit!). The BBC have done a pretty good synopsis of the document.

My personal verdict on the White Paper? A good start but not a bold enough strategy to solve the housing crisis. What would I do? Introduce rent control and longer term tenancies in the private rented sector, allow building homes on the green belt (and that from someone who lives in the Peak District) and enable local authorities to build council housing again at real volume. But then I started my housing career in the 1970s when that is what Government did.