Provide the truly-affordable homes we need to address the fastest rising cause of homelessness

We all need a place called home – which is why making that affordable for all sits at the heart of the Green Party’s election manifesto. Our key policies require government intervention – to ensure we have a national target for affordable housing, to introduce private rent controls to better regulate this sector, and to protect the Green Belt. How would this play out here in Surrey?

Here in Reigate we know there is a problem with average house prices already 14 times average earnings in 2016. This crisis in housing affordability (crucially also for rent) will not be addressed by simply building more homes – it needs us to focus on affordable home provision together with a range of other measures, which are set out in the Green Party’s manifesto – in sharp contrast to the government’s failure to provide a clear plan to sort out housing – for a long time.

Much of the problem sits with central government. Here is a flavour of what our MP has supported in government since 2010:

  1. A massive reduction in government support for providing affordable homes, which in 2010 fell from £100,000 to around £16,000 per home provided here by Raven housing.
  2. This led to the redefining what is ‘affordable to rent’ from 50% of market rent to up to 80% of market rent – in one fail swoop making new social housing up to 60% more expensive in 2011. The result is that in the last few years much of the so-called ‘affordable housing’ has become completely unaffordable to many; and then
  3. The ‘viability test’ which gives developer’s an ‘opt out’ to provide any affordable housing or other local social or environmental standards. Now the ability of developer’s to make 20%+ profits trumps any obligation to do what is needed locally. This vicious new policy is part of the Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, voted through despite vocal opposition, including from Green councillors here in Redhill. [Note: this weakening of planning policy, led by Conservative MPs, has also led to a four-fold increase in building on the Green Belt]

This is reflected in our poor record in providing affordable homes locally in recent planning decisions. For example, the failure to even provide the minimum amount of affordability on a number of large developments in the centre of Redhill – the station redevelopment, Liquid and Envy, the council’s own development of Marketfield Way and Cromwell Road and the new flats above KFC in Redhill. The Town and Country Planning Association recently highlighted that we are not alone – government needs to make better planning policy nationally to sort this out.

The knock on effect of rising ‘affordable’ home prices is spiralling private rent costs, which are increasing homelessness as well as the number of people stuck in half-way housing, unable to afford to move on into a new home locally. This totalled 141 families in Reigate and Banstead in December 2016: 116 in temporary accomodation and around 25 families in Bed & Breakfast accomodation (see p41 of budget evidence).

The housing and welfare policies of government since 2010 have created a huge increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. To address homelessness requires an integrated approach which must include a rebalancing of the housing market, focused on providing truly affordable homes, and a reversal of the cuts to public health, including here in Surrey which helps tackle alcohol and drug misuse and sexual health and welfare, helping to address some of the other underlying causes of homelessness. The Green Party policies include a number of ways to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This includes investing in ‘Housing First’ initiatives, where homeless people with complex needs are moved into a home first instead of expecting them to recover on the streets. We must also reverse damaging cuts to welfare, such as the bedroom tax and the removal of housing benefit to under-21s.

And action is also needed locally, Here on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, my Green Councillor colleague Steve McKenna put forward a council motion – which was partially accepted by the Conservative council – for a guarantee that the council will treat its affordable housing policy as a minimum standard, and apply it to all public sites. But these targeted measures will not be sufficient unless they sit alongside a clear and well thought out restructuring of UK housing policy and funding:

– Firstly we need to have not so much a general ‘housebuilding target’ but a target for truly affordable homes. This is why the Green’s housing target is to build 100,000 council homes (homes for affordable rent) every year by 2022. Individuals and families are currently locked into living in hostels or having to move across the country because of the lack of council housing. This in turn means that people on the streets cannot get into hostels.

– Secondly, we need to reform renting – for as long as there is a lack of truly affordable social housing places then the biggest cause of homelessness in the UK is the loss of a private rented tenancy. This is reflected here in Reigate and Banstead, where the end of tenancy (including to introduce a hike in rent prices) is the main factor responsible for the rise in those made homeless. We would tackle this by giving tenants protection from no-fault evictions and rent controls to keep their home affordable.

– Finally, this needs a stronger planning framework. As noted above the Conservative/LibDem government’s reduction of 10,000 pages of planning policy to 52 pages in 2012 and redefinition of affordable as 80% rather than 50% of market rent might sound technical but this frames the problems we have today. The former allows the housing market to support 20% developer profit (as a minimum) before providing any affordable homes and the latter made new so-called affordable homes 60% more expensive overnight and has led to a continual spiralling in housing sale and rent costs. This has devastated living standards for those in private rent more than the last decade of stalled wages for many.

The government has repeatedly made bold promises and then failed to deliver positive changes to UK housing. And while the recent Homelessness Reduction Act will extend from just helping those with a ‘priority need’ to all those made homeless we still need to deal with the root causes – reduced public health provision and a lack of truly affordable homes. Addressing homelessness in the long-term must start with provision of affordable homes, as a right for all – but also requires the integrated social safety net, including public health care, and a commitment to provide these homes on brownfield not countryside and Green Belt sites. It is possible. But changes nationally are crucial if we are to make this happen locally.