Can the Greens really build 500,000 council houses by 2020?

// HA News

According to their manifesto, the Greens commit to build 500,000 social rented homes in 5 years - this is more than has been built in the past 20. Housing Association Magazine explores this intention in greater depth in an attempt to find out if such a bold claim is possible.

A brief history of social housing

In 1951, the then Conservative government decided to prioritise social services, in particular adequate and affordable housing for all. With full support of their government, local councils built nearly 700,000 new social rented homes in a mere 4 year period. The councils continued to build around 100,000 social rented homes a year until 1979.

Nearly 30 years on from this initial drive from the Conservative party, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, shifting the focus towards a free market economy ideals (later known as Thatcherism.) With a new leader the Conservatives prioritised austerity and relaxed on their search for collective solutions, arguably leaving the housing market to become battled over by private bidders.

Where are we now?

In short, we are in a housing crisis. There is a distinct lack of affordable, decent homes across Britain. On average, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes, making the concept of home ownership a pipedream for many. Due to the selling off of the UK’s social housing stock, it is now estimated that more than nine million renters are living in private rented accommodation, including almost 1.3 million families with children. Although perfectly suitable for many, renting for people on low income who need the stability of social housing can be incredibly unstable due to the risk of rent increase, hidden fees and eviction a constant worry. To top it off a recent study indicated that one third of private rented homes in England fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Regardless of where it went wrong, the one thing that all parties seem in agreement with is that urgent reform is needed.

Where will it come from?

With the general election imminent, everybody is talking about social housing. The Conservatives have announced an extension of the Thatcherite right to buy scheme for 1.3m families in housing association properties.

This means that councils will be required sell their most valuable 210,000 properties from their remaining housing stock.

They pledge to build 55,000 affordable homes each year for the next 5 years – a stark contrast to the grandiose figure of 500,000 promised by the Greens.

The Labour party pledge to build more affordable homes than their Tory rivals, namely by prioritising capital investment for housing. However they also wish to maintain the household benefit cap, which many fear will prevent local councils and housing associations from building much needed family-sized houses in the most expensive areas of Britain.

Liberal Democrats are a little illusive when it comes to social housing – they avoid making spending commitments and instead offer a rent-to-buy scheme which many question the affordability of.

Working extensively with SHOUT, Shelter and PriceWaterhouseCoopers on their figures, the Green Party plan to deliver 500,000 good quality homes in just 5 years. The per-unit grant of £60,000 they are proposing would offer councils and housing associations to borrow against future rental income, allowing enough spending enough per home to supply decent quality, sustainable housing.

Who’s paying for this?

A £60,000 pre-unit grant is a lot of money. Where is it going to come from? The Greens suggest that by getting rid of over-generous tax breaks given to private landlords for their mortgages, scrapping ‘Right-to-Buy’ and lifting the borrowing cap on councils, Britain will be in a much better financial position to build.

Is it possible?

Is it even possible to build 100,000 homes a year? It’s undoubtedly ambitious and a daunting prospect for the Greens, but if we look to the past as an example, after World War II councils escalated their homebuilding exponentially from constructing 20,000 homes in 1946 to 81,000 in 1947 and 161,000 in 1948. Quite a significant rise, I’m sure you will agree!

Land and materials are another area for speculation, however with the likes of Persimmon holds enough land for 100,000 houses, the abundance of brownfield sites and the cost and speed efficient modular methods of construction it is certainly possible… but is it probable?

The verdict

In our attempt to ascertain whether there is substance behind the blue sky thinking of the Greens, it is undeniable that the Green Party has done their homework. A vote for the Green Party has always been seen as a protest vote, a sign that you are fed up with the ennui of the archaic political structure. However, with housing being the very hottest of potatoes this election, a cross in the Greens box just might hold water with respect to social housing.
A poll by YouGov showed that the Greens are the second most popular party for young people, only slightly behind Labour. This perhaps comes as no surprise – if you are a young person that wants to start a family in a place you can call home, voting Green may be your best choice.

Will the grass be ‘greener’ on the other side of the election? Only time (and ballot counts) can tell!

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