While the Government’s Social Housing Green Paper and the consultation it launches are welcome and raise important questions for resolution, they serve as yet another reminder of the many fundamental issues which need to be resolved. There are issues about the supply of houses relative to need, about the costs of rented accommodation, about the price of owned accommodation, about the scale of the subsidy the taxpayer should give to rents, and whether the tax payer should subsidise the acquisition of valuable assets by those who live in them. That’s just for starters. Some of the questions posed in the Green Paper cannot really be answered without disentangling these issues.
The fundamental questions relate to whether the provision of housing relates to a wider social purpose, such as enabling job mobility at a change of major economic change or making sure everyone has somewhere to live, which are quite different to aiming to transfer wealth through the tax system and council budgets from those possessing housing assets to those who do not. The figures produced by the BBC on council buy-backs of Right to Buy houses they had earlier sold look shocking and suggest a more fundamental rethink is needed of a policy that does nothing to increase supply.
We do not even have a proper understanding yet as to the reasons for the housing shortage. On the one hand there are the raw statistics about house building and population growth which provide one answer, but on the other there is the issue of unused space and the incentives, though the tax system and the side effects of loose monetary policy, that have been given to own property space not actually strictly needed as housing but as a vehicle for savings. So we still wait for the fundamental review from the government. And some real cash now to deal with the immediate emergency.
Architects have a central role in designing social housing which works both for residents, as the Government rightly emphasises, but also for society as a whole. But until enough resources to make a difference are made available either through central government expenditure or by further increasing local authority borrowing capacity, we will not be able to turn aspiration into reality.