Soft Cities

Council housing is not a dirty word, says Labour as it pledges social housing drive

First published the The Architects Journal, 27/09/22.

The Labour Party has vowed to roll out a massive council house-building programme if it is voted in at the next election.

Speaking in Liverpool at the party’s annual conference, shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy set out policies to boost housebuilding by local authorities.

In Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, the party vowed to abolish Right to Buy and targeted the construction of 150,000 social homes per year with two-thirds of those being delivered by councils. Now Nandy has said she wants to boost the nation’s social housing stock so that it is second only to privately owned homes in terms of numbers. In recent years the private rented sector has taken overtaken social housing to claim that spot.

‘Council housing is not a dirty word,’

‘Council housing is not a dirty word,’ she said. ‘So today, I can announce we will be the first government in a generation to restore social housing to the second largest from of tenure. This will be our mantra: council housing, council housing, council housing.’

The MP for Wigan added: ‘We’re going to rebuild our social housing stock and bring homes back into the ownership of local councils and communities, with home ownership opened up to millions more.’

According to Shelter, in England, there are 1.4 million fewer households in social housing than there were in 1980. To achieve Labour’s aim of creating a ‘new generation of council housing’ it is estimated local authorities would have to build up around 600,000 new social homes. Statistics from government websites show that roughly 15.6 million homes are owned outright; 4.8 million are privately rented; and 4.2 million are in social rent, mainly rented from housing associations and local authorities.

This will mean a significant increase in the current output. In 2020 the AJ reported that local authorities in the UK had built themselves 4,010 homes in the financial year 2018-19 and that, in the same 12-month period, English and Scottish councils had started construction on just 4,330 units of social housing.

Although low, these numbers were markedly higher than in previous years. Currently, however, under Right to Buy rules, a council can be forced to sell any housing it builds.

Last month, the AJ revealed that Mikhail Riches’ Stirling Prize-winning social housing project was about to see its first home sold off under Right to Buy. An AJ Freedom of Information request to Norwich City Council revealed it currently had one sale pending in the 100-home Goldsmith Street scheme, which was the first-ever council housing scheme to win the RIBA Stirling Prize and only the second-ever housing project.


Chloë Phelps of Grounded

I admire the ambition, but even to close the current gap on the private sector numbers it would take a decade at the current pace of 60,000-70,000 completions of affordable/social housing per year.

Assuming the build rate carries on at 175,000 per year for all tenures this would mean building 94,000 per year over ten years, meaning the target is not far off from the one million homes that were built post war. This seems ‘possible’ but the big issues for me are how will it be funded, and who will build them? The skills and material shortage of construction would need some turbo charged investment to make this possible. A closer union between designing and building would need to be forged.

The bigger issue is how we upgrade the 4.2 million social housing stock we already have

This should be approached with caution, while Atlee’s government achieved their ambition we’re still dealing with some of the issues created with the new technologies in concrete construction. The bigger and more important issue for me, is how do we upgrade and improve the 4.2 million social housing stock we have at the moment that are forcing thousands of people to live in poor quality housing.There needs to be a revolution in how these properties are maintained and how do we retrofit these to be zero carbon. This should be the starting point.

Colm Lacey, founder of housing and development consultancy Soft Cities

The clarity of focus of this policy is refreshing. Much of the trouble with affordable housing these days is down to a lack of definition which tends to allow housing provision to diverge from actual housing need. An explicit focus on social housing is likely to provide homes specifically for those most in need, and this can only be a good thing.

What the speech is relatively silent on is the ‘how’.

What the speech is relatively silent on is the ‘how’. After years of hollowing out at the hands of the national administration, many councils simply don’t have resources, skills or capacity to restart social housing delivery at scale anytime soon.

Certainly not at a scale which would deliver the around 600,000 or so homes which would allow social rented provision to overtake private rented provision. In short, it’s a policy which would benefit from some clarity on the support that will be made available to those who are expected to deliver it.

Equally the speech is also silent on other tenures, with only a passing mention of home ownership. One would assume that a new Labour administration would revise Right to Buy legislation in some way to protect any of the new social rent homes which are created, but one would expect this to be balanced with explicit support for other forms of home ownership such as community housing or action on empty homes.

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