Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/497/2686
Brown's 'affordable housing' plan - all smoke and mirrors?
PRIME MINISTER Gordon Brown stirred up the press and the housing world last week when, after just two weeks in post, he promised a 20% increase in the country's housebuilding programme, claiming that three million homes would be built by 2020.
He had already made waves in the reshuffle by promoting Housing Minister Yvette Cooper to the Cabinet, the first time a housing minister has attended Cabinet since 1970. Affordable housing, he stated, is "one of the great causes of our time".
Brown's announcement that he intends to put housing at the top of the political agenda has focused on three new bills which are to be introduced into the next legislative programme. Much of the media attention has concentrated on the numbers of new homes to be built and the reforms to the planning system, making it easier to gain permission to build. Yet there is more to the package of housing reforms than this suggests.
The promise of an extra 20% in the number of new homes built would mean an increase from the current target of 200,000 per year, to a new target of 240,000 homes per year. However, that wouldn't be until 2016 at the earliest. Current new build levels stand at around 167,000 per year, falling short of even the existing targets.
Of these new build properties, in 2006-07, only around 13% were social rented homes. Since New Labour came to power, social house building has decreased by 27% in England. Brown's new plans to increase supply continues to emphasise home ownership at the expense of social rented properties. The majority of new homes will be for sale on the open market.
The PM's plans will allow councils, once again, to use rent revenues to build more houses. However, the housing minister has made it clear that councils won't become the landlords of such properties as in the past but instead these new estates will be run by Arms Length Management Organisations - a first step in council housing privatisation.
Brown claims to tackle the 'structural inefficiencies' of the system by making it easier for planning permission to be granted for developers. This includes a public commitment by Yvette Cooper to allow developers to continue building houses on flood plains.
Brown has back-pedaled on his previous plan to impose a development tax on the building industry who make massive profits through securing planning permission.
The plans for the tax had been through the early stages in the House of Commons, but were opposed by the building industry and the Confederation of British Industry and now appear to have been dropped.
One of the key elements to Brown's housing announcement is a new Housing and Regeneration Bill which will be the vehicle for not only increasing supply, but also for "the reform of social housing to ensure that it is a modern and flexible public service."
Amidst the rhetoric of putting tenants at the heart of social housing, increasing choice and driving up standards, there are proposals to implement the recommendations of the recent Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation.
The plans are for light-touch regulation for social housing landlords, enabling housing associations to monitor their own performance rather than be inspected.
The Cave Review also recommended the partial de-regulation of rents, echoing the finding of the government-sponsored Hills Report earlier this year. That report raised the idea of lifting rent restrictions in the north of the country first, where the difference between private sector rents and social housing rents is lower than in London and the south east.
The new Bill will also introduce other policies in response to the influential Hill Report. It is widely anticipated that this will include plans to end lifetime tenure for new social housing tenants, with offers of time-limited tenancies replacing a permanent tenancy for young people in particular.
The new housing reforms may appear to increase supply, yet they prioritise private ownership of property, reduce regulation of social housing, deregulate social housing rents and weaken security of tenure.
Those who stand to benefit most are those for whom housing is a commodity to be built, bought and sold. Those on low incomes who need secure homes at a price they can afford are not going to gain from Brown's housing plans.
In The Socialist 26 July 2007:
Postal workers' strike
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
Tales from the council chambers
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Socialist Party reviews
Workplace news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis