Let’s ensure politicians champion associations

The sector needs to push the housing agenda to political candidates ahead of the general election, says Carol Matthews, Riverside’s Chief Executive

Saying that we find ourselves in ‘unprecedented times’ is fast becoming a bit hackneyed.

But not since the mid-1970s have we seen such quick successive general elections, not to mention a referendum on our membership of the EU, albeit with a very different outcome.

Unlike in the run-up to the 2015 general election, most political commentators believe there will only be one possible result, and that the only unknown is the size of the Conservatives’ winning majority. But a lot can happen in four weeks, so let’s wait and see.

What we do know, however, is that whatever the outcome, we should be braced for a sizeable turnover of MPs, with a likely 100-150 new faces in Westminster.

Much of British politics since the announcement of the EU referendum has been dominated by Brexit. And it is at the epicentre of this election, although the rhetoric has shifted to the importance of leadership: who can best navigate the country through the unchartered waters of leaving the EU and provide stability through the accompanying uncertainty?

Somehow among all of this, we must make sure that domestic policy issues are not forgotten – and for us that means pushing housing, housing, housing.

Whoever forms the government on 9 June will have a plethora of pressing issues competing for their attention, but the intractable housing crisis facing Britain must be at the centre of its domestic agenda.

There has been considerable momentum built over the past 12 months, which culminated in a Housing White Paper published by the last government. We must build on this momentum and continue to press for change, working with our new government to ensure the development of a coherent and effective set of housing policies.

As all the main political parties now seem to recognise, housing associations have a vital part to play in delivering the new homes Britain needs. However, in order to build more homes, we need the right tools and support from a new government.

So what are they?

The new government needs to adopt an explicit, sustainable, annual national housing target rather than just an end target across the whole course of parliament which quickly becomes meaningless. An annual target, against which progress would be reported to parliament each year, would help to ensure a sustainable increase in supply.

In doing this, government must recognise that the housing crisis is not a singular one – and targeted solutions are needed in different regions across the country. As part of Homes for the North, we are completing research analysing how many homes the North of England needs.

Without giving too much away, the need for a specific northern housing target is evident, helping to support the balanced economic growth which is important for the industrial strategy. Watch this space!

A new government also needs to look again at regeneration, seeing it as more than an opportunity to densify London estates. Its importance in stimulating economic growth in housing markets outside of the overheated London and South East cannot be underestimated.

We need to create a renaissance in regeneration in towns and cities where a poor housing offer is holding back economic recovery. Where regional mayors, local authorities and their partners can demonstrate an integrated approach which has economic development at its heart, the full range of planning powers and infrastructure investment available to high-demand areas such as garden towns should be extended to these area-based regeneration zones.

And it’s also about the range of housing we need to build to meet needs. When the Future of supported housing joint committee report was published on the May bank holiday, I could have danced around the maypole for joy.

Influential MPs have listened to the sector, and our concerns have been accepted by both the Work and Pensions Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee. It‘s highly significant that it was a cross-party group of MPs who collectively agreed that Local Housing Allowance (LHA) is not the answer to putting supported housing on a long-term sustainable footing.

Indeed it would do the very opposite, almost certainly sounding the death knell for hundreds of supported schemes across the country. It is vital that the new government accepts these recommendations and backs away from the postcode lottery of crude and divisive LHA caps.

Finally, the new government must prioritise a quick rent settlement on rents for housing associations, ending the uncertainty post-2020. It must be based on giving certainty to housing associations and balancing truly affordable rents for tenants against ambitions to build for developing housing associations.

Our task as housing associations over the next few weeks is to get out there and meet candidates to spread the word about how, together, we can fix the housing crisis. Given the number of new faces, it will need all of us to get stuck in and find new champions for housing associations in Westminster.

This blog was first published by Inside Housing on 15 May 2017