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England needs to build more than three million social houses to resolve its housing crisis, a new report.

Housing charity Shelter set up a commission of sixteen politicians and experts in early 2018 in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, a tower block blaze in west London which eventually claimed 72 lives.

The commission included politicians from across the political spectrum including former Labour leader Ed Miliband and former Conservative party co-chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. The Commission engaged in ‘conversations’ with more than 31,000 people. It considered approaches to social housing and housing policy in France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and one country outside Europe, Singapore.

3.1 million new homes in 20 years

In its report entitled A Vision for Social Housing, the commission has called for a decisive and generational shift in housing policy with an historic renewal of social housing and a 20-year programme to deliver 3.1 million more social homes.

The report says: “We believe this vision is the only way the government can meet its 300,000 target for new homes each year. It will provide an affordable, stable home for 3.1 million households. It will save £60 billion in benefit costs over thirty years.”

It has also identified five themes common to social housing across Europe and Singapore.

  1. Balance – 51% of immigrants in the Netherlands live in social housing, and make up 31% of the residents. This compares with 27% and 16% respectively in the UK, which highlights the important role played by private rented housing. In the Netherlands private rented stock only accounts for 9% of the stock and 59% is owner occupied.
  2. Ownership and the role of housing associations – Dutch housing associations own 32% of the housing stock and 75% of tenants rent from housing associations.  In comparison in the UK only 18% of the housing stock is owned by social landlords, whereas private rentals at 17% are almost as important. Some 500 Dutch housing associations own 4,500 units each on average. In 1995 national policy switched to what is called ‘grossing and balancing’ which wrote off their debts and gave them autonomy.
  3. Integration – In Germany after reunification, social housing units fell from 4 million in 1980 to under 1.4 million in 2012. However coops now make up 11% of the rental housing stock, and provide a useful alternative to owner occupation. In Copenhagen in Denmark coops are even more important and account for 30% of housing compared with 20% for social housing. Couples or families account for 48% of the housing stock but only 27% of social housing, which tends therefore to cater single people who might otherwise be more socially isolated.
  4. Form – The Dutch, like the English, like to live in individual houses. Half of the social rented stock is single family housing. However in all countries lifestyles are changing, and a growing number are choosing to live at higher densities near the city centre, where they benefit from higher levels of services such as public transport, employment, or simply entertainment. Urban form or density has some relationship with cultural or institutional values, with the British traditionally favouring independent living and a minimum of welfare services compared say with the Nordic countries. But in an increasingly global economy, it is possible that attitudes may change in regard to who people want to live near so long as basic standards can be maintained, especially in the public realm.
  5. Eligibility. There are real benefits in providing a balance or mix of housing tenure, especially in new settlements where housing can be used to bring the broad spectrum of society together, and break down prejudices. Thus in Austria, where social housing makes up 23% of the housing stock, 80-90% of the population are eligible. In the Netherlands it has an even larger role: it makes up 40% of the stock and 57% in a city like Rotterdam.

The report examines different categories of need and the number of homes required to address them.

The backlog of unmet need – households in greatest need now

To support households in greatest need now, that is households we identify as the backlog of unmet housing need, would require 1.3 million social homes

Younger trapped renters in the private rental sector

A further 1.2 million homes would be required to address the anticipated increase in existing and newly forming lower income young households who are not expected to be able to afford home ownership in their lifetimes.

Older renters in the private rental sector

Finally, to house older (aged 55 and over) households on lower incomes in the private rented sector would require 690,000 homes

Call for a new housing regulator

The commission has also called for a new statutory housing regulator. The report adds: “We need a new regulator working across social and private renting to protect residents, and to set and properly enforce common standards. A new national tenants’ organisation or union is needed, to give social housing residents a voice at a regional and national level.”

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