Our editor-at-large continues his investigation into the state of the UK housing market.
Continuing last month’s discussion of the affordability of housing, I’m keen to explore some alternatives to the status quo.
In north Bristol, HomeChoice Bristol has a number of three-bedroom council houses available for social rental at approximately £100 per week. That’s £5,200 per year, about 24 per cent of average national earnings, and falls well below the 35 per cent that housing charity Shelter deems the affordable threshold.
It sounds like good news for tenants. But the available stock in Bristol is extremely limited – while 2,000 homes become available each year, there are 10,000 households on the waiting list – and the current Government’s Right to Buy initiative is going to see the stock of affordable social housing diminish even further.
In truth, most people seeking homes in north Bristol, as anywhere else in the country, are faced with the choice of either renting a social home from a housing association (a tantalising yet diminishing possibility); finding, if they’re lucky, a home for shared ownership (these currently represent a tiny proportion of what’s on offer) or renting from a private landlord.
The latter route costs almost exactly double what they would pay for renting social housing, thrusting their outgoings to 51 per cent of net earnings. On top of which, tenants face the insecurity of short-term tenancies and the extra costs of agents’ fees.
A new organisation dedicated to delivering financial and social returns, Bristol & Bath Regional Capital (BBRC), is attempting to inject a dose of sanity and principle into the private rental sector, a sector that this Government sees as some kind of magic wand.
BBRC has worked with community housing action group Acorn to put together an Ethical Lettings Charter, setting out some long overdue principles for private lettings, including guaranteed rental terms, low-to-zero fees and reasonable market rates.
The result, it’s hoped, could be a private market in which tenants enjoy the same security as the social rental sector.
However, a healthy market needs more than privately rented homes. It also requires, as I’ve implied above, a goodly dose of houses for the social rented sector.
There are still, thank goodness, local authorities in the UK that want to build or buy homes for their tenants; even some, such as Basingstoke and Deane, that are considering taking social housing stock from developers in partial lieu of land payments on larger schemes.
Furthermore, a healthy market needs to offer a variety of tenure models, from outright ownership through to outright social tenancy at the extreme ends, but including, in the middle, shared ownership, private sector rental and assisted schemes, where help from mortgage companies, developers and government alike ought to be easing the burden of excessive prices.
One example is Permanent Affordability. This was trialled at the Applewood development in Stroud that HAB helped to create – the social landlord, GreenSquare, sold a number of homes at a discount below market rates with, effectively, a covenant that they should always be sold on at the same discount.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a Pocket Living development (020 7291 3683; pocketliving.com), you can apply to buy a relatively affordable starter home, at a price at least 20 per cent below the surrounding market value, though you need to live or work nearby in order to qualify.
If you’re looking for a new home right now, you should first visit the Government’s Help to Buy website (helptobuy.gov.uk), which lists options you can explore, from the national Shared Ownership scheme to the Equity Loan offer, government Mortgage Guarantees and, most intriguing of all, the Help to Buy ISA.
There ought to be a role for self-build in the drive towards affordability. After all, self-builders generally construct for less and build higher-quality, greener homes.
In Germany, where self-build and custom-build are the norm, there are building groups – collectives of private households or social housing tenants – that work with their provider to construct group schemes, building friendships, interdependency and a neighbourhood culture of sharing and support along the way.
Here in the UK, self-build is still in its infancy, and we have yet to see local authorities and housing associations embrace it. There are promising signs, though, with great examples under way already, such as the Lilac co-operative in Leeds.
Such diversity promises a healthier market. But the fact remains that in this country, now the most populous in Europe, all the government measures, offers and models do not compare with the very best alternative, which is to build and let more social housing through both local authorities and housing associations. It’s something this Government is determined to avoid.
Between 1945 and 1975 half of all the properties built in England were council homes; for the past decade only one in every 200 new-builds has been a council home. Social housing is not a mark of a failing society but a civilised, thriving one.
The city of Vienna puts the high quality of life there down to just a few things, one of which is a progressive social housing programme begun in the Twenties. Today 60 per cent of Viennese households live in subsidised apartments; 220,000 live in full council homes.
It’s surely not a coincidence that in the most recent Mercer quality of living league tables, Vienna was voted the most liveable city in the world.
Words: Kevin McCloud; Photography: Matt Chisnall
Article accurate at time of print, December 2016.