The Housing Bill: more political than practical

In 2016, affordable housing is clearly a national priority. But will the Housing Bill help?

According to Shelter, 1.8 million British families are on waiting lists to get council housing, and 41,000 families with children were homeless this Christmas, hopping between different forms of temporary accommodation. In the private rented sector, up to 1 in 5 people don’t have the funds for this month’s rent and will instead borrow from various sources.

In response to the housing crisis, the government’s controversial Housing and Planning Bill is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords, having recently passed through the fifth sitting. It’s likely to be passed later this year, probably after several amendments. You can follow the link to read the full (very long and dense) text, but here are the key takeaways:

  • Extends Right to Buy to housing association tenants, which will be part-subsidised by requiring councils to sell all high-value properties as soon as they’re vacated
  • Councils will be obliged to ensure the building of ‘starter homes’ for young first-time buyers, which will be capped at £250,000, or £450,000 in London
  • Council tenancies will be limited to five years and families with a household income of over £30,000 will have their rent increased to market levels
  • Improves data-sharing and banning orders to control ‘rogue landlords
  • Extends compulsory purchase orders, and repossession of abandoned buildings will be possible without going through the courts
housing bill, social housing, council flats,

Block of council flats. Critics say the Housing Bill will reduce supply of affordable social housing.  Photo by Lydia (CC BY 2.0).

The government are convinced this reform is what’s needed to solve the UK’s housing crisis, and yet it has proved incredibly controversial so far, with hundreds of activists descending on Parliament in January to protest the changes, which they claim will reduce the supply of affordable housing.

But what’s the architect’s angle on this contentious ongoing issue? Below is a interview between Mark Pellant (chartered architect for 25 years and director of Koru Architects) and Tegan Tallullah (Communications Officer at Koru Architects).

TT = Tegan Tallullah | MP = Mark Pellant

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TT: What’s your first impression of the Housing and Planning Bill?
MP: It seems very angled towards home ownership, rather than increasing the stock of affordable homes – or even homes in general. To me it seems to have a political edge to it, which isn’t surprising as most governments try to solve the housing issue in a way that improves their electoral chances. This Bill will be very beneficial to some people – people who can afford to get on the housing ladder – so it will be a vote winner for them. But if the goal is to make the housing market more affordable, then go back to the drawing board!

TT: How will it impact the availability of truly affordable housing?
MP: It won’t increase the stock of affordable housing, and may very well decrease it. If social housing is sold off and brought into the private rent sector, then it will be less affordable and that’s moving in the wrong direction. Extending Right to Buy won’t benefit low-income tenants, but it will be good for those that can afford it! There are a couple of positive points in the Bill though. Something does need to be done to tackle the problem of rogue landlords, and also abandoned buildings should be brought back into use. However, in many cases it’s not at all clear who owns abandoned buildings, and the Bill doesn’t seem to have a solution on how to track them down.

TT: How will it impact the sustainability of housing?
MP: I doubt it will have any effect. Sustainability is clearly not a priority of this Bill or this government more generally, as we’ve seen with the scrapping of all sorts of green schemes – like the Green Deal, the zero carbon homes policy and also subsidies for renewable energy. I don’t think this Bill will damage the sustainability drive. There’s nothing specifically anti-environmental about it. I guess in a way the damage has already been done with the scrapping of those pro-environmental policies.

TT: What policies would be more effective?
MP: There needs to be some policy to prevent properties being brought up by wealthy people who don’t have any intention of living in them, renting them out or even selling them any time soon – and instead just keep them vacant as a financial asset. I have a friend in London who lives opposite a fancy new development which doesn’t have any lights on in the evening – no one lives there. It’s just gathering value as housing becomes more and more scarce in the capital. I also think the planning process needs to be streamlined, to make it quicker and easier to get permission and get building. Similarly, once developers have permission, they should be required to get on with it within a reasonable timescale, rather than just sitting on it as it grows more valuable – as many currently do. In terms of increasing the stock of affordable homes, social housing isn’t workable if it’s going to be continually sold off through Right to Buy. The housing association and shared ownership schemes seem to work well and should be extended.

TT: Should architects try to influence the housing market, and if so, how?
MP: Yes, I think we should try to make an impact. Most architects rely on the RIBA to engage politicians on their behalf, but very well-known ‘’starchitects’’ will be very vocal in the public sphere. I don’t think much can be gained from lobbying local government: they lack the power to influence national policy. I think the best way to have an impact is probably by trying to engage developers and convince them it’s in everybody’s best interests – in terms of public wellbeing and health – to have good quality homes with reasonable amounts of space, and also outdoor space. So that means working with developers that are most likely to listen. Then, lead the way by using best-practise and designing the most inspirational homes possible. If you do that then other developers and architects tend to take notice and try similar things.

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What do you think about the Housing and Planning Bill? Is it the death knell of affordable housing or a leg up to first-time buyers?
Or both? Or neither? Let us know your view by tweeting to @koruarchitects.

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Photo credit: Lydia (CC BY 2.0).

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