Why effective housing policy needs to see beyond politics

Prioritising long-term solutions to address issues in the housing market such as affordability and quality is essential to achieving a realistic vision for UK housing, according to a new paper from the Whitehall Group.

Related topics:  Housing,  Government,  Politics
Property | Reporter
9th May 2023
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"The overriding proposal is for a more joined-up and coherent housing policy. This should run wider than just not changing housing ministers frequently, but also engaging HM Treasury and financial regulators"

‘A vision for the UK housing market’, written by Anna Clare Harper and Emma Fletcher for the Whitehall Group, a forum of the Cambridge University Land Society, concludes that the scale of views, stakeholders, interest groups and vested interests makes the formulation and implementation of housing policy ‘a hazardous and difficult task’.

The document focuses on what changes are needed in order to improve the efficiency and quality of existing housing stock and achieve a realistic vision for UK housing.

This is an integral part of the UK meeting its climate obligations, as well as serving its social needs: the paper highlights that 14 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from UK homes, and 98 per cent of the homes we will use in 5 years’ time already exist.

Recommendations include aligning housing policy timeframes with the goal of Net Zero 2050 since the two are closely interlinked. This would help avoid the kind of policy turbulence that has been experienced as a result of eight secretaries of state and ten ministers responsible for housing since 2018.

A key aim is to ensure people have the right housing for their age and stage of life. Policy suggestions to achieve this objective include incentivising redistribution – for example, encouraging the 3.6m homeowners aged over 65 with more than two spare bedrooms to consider downsizing.

Since this could be resented by older, income-poor people in larger dwellings, the paper considers ways to sugar the pill, such as offering practical support for moving, waving stamp duty for downsizers reducing the size of their property by two bedrooms or more, and ensuring there is a supply of more suitable dwellings for this demographic in all areas.

Energy efficiency is also discussed. The document proposes practical recommendations such as removing VAT for energy-saving materials used to refurbish homes, relaxing listed building controls for energy-saving retrofits, and aligning council tax with energy performance (EPC rating).

The private rental sector is increasingly influenced by policies - and yet supply shortages, quality problems and energy efficiency concerns remain. To help tackle these issues, the document looks at ways to ensure people can rent decent homes in the right locations to give flexibility to economically active households, providing suitable housing as an attractive alternative to purchasing or House Association renting.

Moving away from archaic terms such as ‘landlord’ and ‘tenant’ towards ‘property owner’ and ‘resident’ is one of many suggestions, including incentivising longer leases to enable residents to put down roots and invest in their communities, encouraging lenders to offer discounted mortgages to property owners offering longer tenancies, and tax breaks to those property owners.

The quality of social housing is also explored, with the paper concluding that more weight must be placed here following recent tragic events. A review of the location of Housing Association homes to maximise the efficiency of maintenance is encouraged, as well as the adoption of new technology enabling tenants to upload photos of problems to landlords and encouraging utility providers to deliver standard customer service and pricing to those on prepayment meters.

Dame Kate Barker, writing the foreword to the Whitehall Group Paper, comments: "This paper seeks to look right across the problems in housing and takes a holistic view of solutions… proposing policies without fear of vested interests.

"The issues of supply and distribution of space will be familiar to all those reflecting on housing problems, adding in quality and the increasingly urgent problem of energy efficiency gives this paper extra bite.

"The overriding proposal is for a more joined-up and coherent housing policy. This should run wider than just not changing housing ministers frequently, but also engaging HM Treasury and financial regulators. Only then could we achieve the goal of defining, and moving towards, housing market success."

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