We must balance the need for new housing against the need for affordable homes

There aren’t enough homes to go around and each year we’re getting further behind.

Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, Kathleen Kelly questions what 'fairness' means in housing policy.

I was just mulling over last week's spending round and the implications for (mostly social) housing when I came across an article focussing on tenants’ problems moving and landlords’ problems finding anyone to take on three-bedroomed properties in the wake of the bedroom tax.

There aren’t enough homes to go around and each year we’re just getting further behind. This has created some unintended consequences. Information is emerging on how the need to move existing tenants affected by the bedroom tax is crowding out new lets to homeless people. Research in one area suggests it would take eight years to house everyone who needs to downsize to a one-bedroom home as a result of the bedroom tax; not to mention NHF’s publication on bedroom tax home truths.

With £3.3 billion in capital grant for affordable housing and a 10-year social rent setting formula, politicians have heard the message that we need more homes.

But as other commentators have pointed out, this all comes with big strings attached – not least the acceleration of conversions into the affordable rent regime and the resulting demise of traditional social rented housing.

My biggest concern is whether we have sufficient consensus on who those shiny, new homes should be for - or at least where tackling poverty fits into the overall picture of new housing supply.

Government defends the bedroom tax based on a notion of fairness between social tenants. No one would deny that we need to make better use of our housing stock – social rented or otherwise. But there simply isn’t enough of it at the right size and in the right place to achieve this re-calibration of people and homes overnight, without causing significant hardship along the way.

Understandably, many landlords are focusing on work as one way to help tenants meet shortfalls between their rent and benefits. That’s laudable but the defining feature of poverty today is that there are a million more households where someone is in work experiencing poverty than workless households (if you exclude pensioners). Low rents are important in reducing poverty, especially in a system that will include housing benefit within the annually-managed expenditure cap.

Both of these points appear to be lost on policy makers. To me, that means we must be careful to avoid defining social housing as only for those ‘in work’ – after all, work these days is often insecure.

With build to (private) rent and Help to Buy dominating last week’s Chartered Institute of Housing annual conference, it seemed largely left to the audience to ask how such initiatives would house those in, or at risk of, poverty.

For my money, we don’t need different tenures to be competing against one another in the fight for capital or revenue subsidy. We do need funding and planning frameworks to, at the very least, balance the need for new housing development at any cost against the need to provide affordable homes, including homes for those in, and at risk of, poverty. And to do it in the most cost effective way for the public purse. A more level playing field between the features of the two rented sectors might be a good place to start.