Issues & Ideas | 20th April 2015

Guest post: Here’s how the Greens can build 500,000 council houses in five years

The Green Party’s housing spokesperson defends the party’s plans to build as many council houses in five years as have been built in the past twenty.

Photo: Getty

By

Last week May2015 wrote a sceptical piece about the Green Party’s manifesto, and the realism of its plans. Now Tom Chance, the party’s housing spokesman, offers a defense. 

In 1951, the Conservative manifesto declared housing to be “the first of the social services”, and councils went on to build almost 700,000 new social rented homes in just four years. Councils continued to build around 100,000 social rented homes a year until Thatcher came to power.

From 1979, mainstream politics in the UK lost faith in collective solutions to our problems, and gambled on the market coping on its own. Look where that has got us.

In this election we have the Conservatives promising to flog off more social housing, undermine the financial stability of housing associations, and build a paltry 55,000 affordable homes each year, few of which will be affordable to people on low incomes.

Labour are a little better, with a vague pledge to build more affordable homes by prioritising capital investment for housing. But they also want to keep the household benefit cap, which undermines the ability of councils and housing associations to build family-sized homes in the most overpriced parts of the country.

The Lib Dems offer more flexibility to councils, but make no spending commitments.

None of them make any mention of social housing, which guarantees secure tenancies and genuinely affordable rents for people on low incomes. The term “affordable” has become a joke – homes costing more than £1,000 per month are now described that way.

So it is left to the Green Party to champion social housing, with our pledge to provide half a million new social rented homes by 2020. The target comes from work done by Shelter and SHOUT, a lobby group of housing professionals and journalists. The latter have very warmly welcomed our pledge.

Are there lots of potential complications to iron out? Undoutedly, as with all bold policy proposals.

Don’t worry, these homes won’t be made of plywood. The per-unit grant of £60,000 is based on work by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which updated the cost of social housing under the last Labour government. Councils, housing associations and co-operatives use these grants to borrow against future rental income, so spending enough per home to build decent quality, sustainable homes.

We pay for this extra grant by scrapping the generous tax breaks given to private landlords for their mortgages – a tax break that, incidentally, helps to drive up house prices. We also want to scrap expensive policies like ‘Right to Buy’, which also drive up house prices. By lifting the borrowing cap on councils and abolishing this ‘right’, we will put councils on a firmer financial footing to borrow and build.

But we don’t even need to find this money in the short-term. With decent homes you get a stable rental income, reduced NHS costs, a lower housing benefit bill, more people in construction work paying taxes, and a valuable asset from the day the home is built. Modelling by John Healey cited by the Fabians has suggested that social housing pays for itself in the long run.

Could we build 100,000 a year? It’s ambitious, but after the Second World War councils went from building 20,000 homes in 1946 to 81,000 in 1947 and 161,000 in 1948. Councils, housing associations and co-operatives today will need a few years to ramp up production, so we give them that time. We don’t believe Labour and the Lib Dems can achieve their overall house building targets without this scale of affordable house building.

But all of that nitpicking is a distraction from the main purpose of our pledge.

Between them, councils have identified have plenty of land in their local plans for these homes. If you want to get very technical there are concerns about the availability of bricks, but there are also lots of exciting new methods of construction like off-site “flat pack” homes that could help.

So is our policy broadly realistic? Yes. Are there lots of potential complications to iron out? Undoutedly, as with all bold policy proposals.

But all of that nitpicking is a distraction from the main purpose of our manifesto pledge: to champion social housing, and reassert that part of the solution to our housing crisis must be a collectively funded house building programme for those on low incomes. A vote for the Green Party tells the next government this must be back on the table.

Tom Chance is the Green Party’s housing spokesperson and their 2015 election candidate for Lewisham West & Penge.