The chair of Peabody says the new housing and communities team would do well to continue in the same direction
It is just over four years since I made my maiden speech in the House of Lords. In that speech, I set out my opposition to significant parts of the Housing and Planning Bill.
Measures to divert public money from social housing to home ownership, I argued, were wrong in principle and wrong in practice. Quite apart from being unfair, the policies were unworkable and could not deliver on the stated aims of the government.
The mayor of London at the time, Boris Johnson, said the government’s funding plan for extending the Right to Buy to housing associations was “the height of insanity”.
After quite a bruising passage through Parliament, 19 defeats and amendments referred back and forth between the Lords and the Commons three times, the bill received royal assent on 12 May 2016.
If there was a bright side to the referendum result, it was that the change of prime minister signalled a move towards a much more balanced and sensible policy on housing
As was widely reported at the time, the government was pretty unhappy with my amendments to the bill and, rather unusually, the then-housing minister Brandon Lewis made his way to the Lords’ chamber to watch intently as I delivered my speech from the crossbenches.
A year later the UK voted to leave the EU and David Cameron resigned, with new prime minister Theresa May winning leadership. If there was a bright side to the referendum result, it was that the change of prime minister signalled a move towards a much more balanced and sensible policy on housing.
Much of the Housing and Planning Act had already proven to be pretty unworkable. Many of those deeply divisive measures such as ‘pay to stay’ and extending Right to Buy to housing associations, funded by forced sales of higher value council homes, were quietly dropped or let lie by the May government.
The move towards funding of mixed-tenure housing, together with an explicit attitude change to the social rented sector reflected well on May and the team she assembled.
There was a welcome respect for and valuing of council housing, and a recognition that the private sector alone cannot deliver the housing supply this country needs.
Toby Lloyd, recruited to Number 10 from Shelter, made an effective case for more government action on social housing.
Housing associations completed more than 45,000 new homes last year and started building almost 50,000 units
Housing ministers Gavin Barwell, Sajid Javid and James Brokenshire all helped to re-establish the principle that government is a key player in providing low-cost rented homes.
And of course Sir Ed Lister – now in Number 10 – played an important role in driving forward partnerships between Homes England and the housing sector to accelerate delivery.
With an improved policy environment, housing associations completed more than 45,000 new homes last year and started building almost 50,000 units.
The number of new homes for social rent, though, remains very small. That’s because government funding per unit is still only a fraction of the cost of building and letting it at a social rent.
Some estimates say the government’s current grant programme equates to 0.45% of GDP. That is up from the 0.2% of 2015, but clearly there is much more to do to tackle the country’s housing challenges.
The new prime minister Boris Johnson says he wants to invest in vital infrastructure, and rightly includes housing in that. But there are concerns that the pendulum could swing back towards simply focusing on home ownership rather than a mixed tenure approach including more investment in social housing.
Low-cost home ownership is, of course, a desirable thing but it would in my view be a major mistake to divert money away from the contribution government makes to low-cost renting.
If I have one bit of advice to the Treasury and the new Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government team – it would be to keep calm and carry on with the direction of the former prime minister and her team.
Don’t be tempted to go back to the divisive and ultimately unproductive housing policies of the Cameron/Osborne era.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel with new products and initiatives. We just need more investment to help housing associations and councils deliver the quality social housing the country is crying out for.
Bob Kerslake is a member of the House of Lords, sitting on the crossbenches. He is the chair of Peabody and president of the Local Government Association