Last week saw Theresa May announce she would “scrap the cap” on borrowing – the cap which imposed limits on how much councils could borrow to build new homes. While the detail is thin on the ground -with little action likely before 2020- after months of campaigning, it’s still a welcome retreat from the attack on council housing undertaken by both major parties over the last 40 years.
With soaring rents, unaffordable house prices and a ballooning housing ‘market,’ pricing many out of living in places like Brighton and Hove, it is painfully clear that we urgently need new council homes.
Building social housing plays a vital role in tackling what even the Conservative Government now admit is a ‘broken (free) housing market.’ It wasn’t all too long ago that both Labour and the Conservative parties were promoting the privatisation of council housing – and in Brighton and Hove, this saw much of our housing stock lost. A previous Labour administration tried to sell the entire council housing stock – a proposal firmly rejected by tenants.
We need 100,000 + new council houses a year to rebalance the housing market. The 1950s and 1960s saw Governments of both political colours build 100-250,000 new council houses a year. We need a return to this – and the need cannot be ignored.
The Green Party and housing campaigners like myself have long argued for building more council homes. However, despite news that the borrowing cap looks set to be lifted, many councils have still failed to use the funds they already had available. In Brighton and Hove, across a three-year period the Labour council only used £10 million (net) of the £41 million borrowing it has available under the cap. With record numbers sleeping on our streets, high private sector rents, and almost 15,000 on the waiting list for housing, it is unforgivable that over £30 million for housing was still unspent by April this year.
Freeing borrowing is a key first step. Yet on top of this, we need action from government that tips the balance in favour of supporting lower rents. Leading economists have demonstrated that building lower rent council housing not only provides truly affordable housing, but crucially, saves the public purse over the long run by minimising how much has to be spent on housing benefit.The practice of using public money to cover the cost of increasingly high rent – instead of funding the construction of homes at much lower rent – is a false economy. This money would be much better used to help meet the costs of building at truly affordable social, or ‘living rent.’
Talk of scrapping the cap is a step forward to building to homes we need. But with homelessness escalating and the cost of living become increasingly unaffordable, we need even greater recognition that the housing market has failed – and more intervention to rectify it.
Cllr David Gibson is the housing spokesperson for the Greens on Brighton and Hove City Council