A Home for Everyone 

The pandemic has regularly been likened to a war, with appeals to the Dunkirk spirit, the Queen’s assurance that “We’ll Meet Again”, and front-line workers described as heroes. After both World Wars, the governments of the day launched massive building programmes for social housing under the slogan ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’. Many of today’s ‘heroes’ are low-paid, low-status workers, living in insecure housing they can barely afford. And the housing prospects for their children and grand-children are, currently, even more dire. 

We need a new, huge programme to build genuinely affordable and high quality social housing, not just for the heroes amongst us but to ensure that everyone has a place they can call home. 

There was a spiralling housing crisis in the UK even before the pandemic hit. Here are some facts: 

· Homelessness was rising – 277,000 homeless and 4,000 sleeping rough in England on any given night. 

· Councils were having to house more than 86,000 households in temporary accommodation, including 127,000 children. The amount they were spending on temporary accommodation increased by 71% over the 5 years to 2019; the bill had risen to £1.1 bn a year. 

· Homeownership was at its lowest level for 30 years. 

· 30% of 20- to 34-year-olds were living with a parent or guardian, a steep rise on recent years. 

· The proportion of social rented homes nationally had fallen to 17% (14% in Frome), compared with 32% in 1979. 

· With homeownership off-limits and huge waiting-lists for social rented homes, many have no choice but to rent from private landlords – the proportion of adults renting privately doubled from 11% to 23% over the past 20 years. 

· Around half of the low-income working-age population now spend over a third of their income on housing costs. Since 2002/3, housing costs for low-income families have risen 4 times faster than costs for middle-income families. 

The housing crisis has been accentuated in Frome. House prices here rose by 14.5% in 2015 alone, rents in the private rented sector have been spiralling, and some landlords have converted former rental properties to AirBnB. Housing costs as a proportion of income have risen to such an extent that many people who grew up in the town, and have their livelihoods and community connections here, have had to move away or are living in insecure and/or unaffordable accommodation. There are currently 480 households registered on Homefinder Somerset seeking affordable accommodation in Frome, of whom 280 are on the gold and silver bands (indicating a high level of housing need). 

OK, so we had a housing crisis before the pandemic. Many of us during the lock-down have come to appreciate just how lucky we are to live in secure, affordable accommodation; ‘home’ and ‘garden’ have taken on new meanings. But for the hundreds of thousands, many in younger generations, who are not so lucky, the lock-down has had the opposite effect. For example, polling from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has just found that, since the pandemic, a fifth of England’s 8.6m renting households are now worried that they will not be able to afford their rent or a mortgage in coming months. 

There is an urgent need to invest in social housing – principally through a major, national building programme. The government’s previous housing policy placed home-ownership centre-stage; in 2011 it created a new category of ‘affordable’ housing, which effectively treated subsidised housing as a temporary stage for those on the path to owner-occupation; and it saw social housing as ‘housing of last resort’, an undesirable condition reserved (ideally 

temporarily) for those with no other options. Such a policy was always highly ideological, although it could be justified by the stigma attached to social housing by decades of (ideologically motivated) under-investment. Now, however, a policy centred on building for home-ownership no longer stacks up, whatever your ideology. A new study by the property agency Savills predicts that 300,000 planned new homes will probably remain on the drawing board over the next 5 years. Stalled construction and the recession will result in 85,000 intended homes lost in the current financial year alone. Many construction sites remain closed or are operating at reduced capacity, due to labour shortages, safety concerns, supply chain issues and prolonged uncertainty. 

We need an ambitious, long-term commitment to social housing – not so-called ‘affordable’ homes on ‘fixed term’ tenancies or for ‘shared ownership’ – but genuinely affordable, social rented homes, with secure tenancies and rents linked to the relatively low earnings of those likely to occupy them. An independent commission set up by Shelter in 2018 recommended1, after a year’s intensive investigation, that the government should invest in a programme to build 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years, an average of 150,000 a year. This is not pie in the sky; in fact it’s the level of social house-building that was taking place in the mid-60s. By contrast, only 6,463 social homes were built in England in 2017/18. This call for investment in a generation of new social housing was echoed just weeks ago in a report2 by the Local Government Association (LGA), whose research had found that a programme of 100,000 new social homes a year would recoup much of the cost through housing benefit savings, and that it would actually create £320bn for the country over 50 years through increased economic activity. 

However, if we are to make a success of such a programme, it is important that we learn from the past. Social housing has been seen as an inferior form of tenure for people unable to buy their own homes; we should recognise it as a desirable part of a housing and land ownership system that without it would be (and currently is) utterly dysfunctional. Social homes have been segregated on mono-tenure estates; we should ensure they are integrated in tenure-blind neighbourhoods. Social homes have often had relatively poor design standards; we should ensure social homes provide households with a sense of pride, stability and community connection. Social housing has been something done for the people who end up living in it; we should enable social housing to be created and managed by or at least in partnership with the residents. 

Can we in Frome hope for new social housing? Just a few days ago, on 6th July, Mendip Council’s Cabinet Committee approved a recommendation to initiate a new affordable housing programme on Council-owned land, to build 200-250 homes in the District. For Frome, this would likely mean 50 new ‘affordable’ homes, of which 25-30 would be for social rent. Not exactly ambitious, and unlikely to make much of an impact for those 480 households on Homefinder Somerset, not to mention the hundreds more who haven’t bothered to register because they’ve had no hope of being offered accommodation in the town. But it’s a start. 

So what would a really ambitious social housing programme mean for Frome? Our town has its spirit of independence, a creative Town Council, a very strong community and voluntary sector, a commitment to sustainability and tackling the climate emergency, and the first Community Land Trust in the District. A social housing programme here could 

· Offer secure, genuinely affordable homes for the many people in housing need who love the town, have connections with our community, and want to contribute 

· Enable the younger people who grew up here to stay or, if they’ve had to leave, to return 

· Ensure that low income (e.g. carers, shop-workers, creatives, people starting up businesses…) is not a barrier to having a decent home here 

· Create employment and offer training in all aspects of building and construction 

· Offer a model for others of creating energy efficient, zero-carbon, social housing 

· Engage volunteers in the programme 

· Ensure the social housing is genuinely community-led, for example by working with the Community Land Trust. 

What’s not to like? 

We can start making this happen by 

  • Encouraging Mendip Council to expand and enhance its intended social housing programme and engage with our community in planning its delivery in Frome; 

  • Ensure that any new developments in Frome comply with Mendip policy by including a minimum of 24% social rented homes and a further 6% for shared ownership; 

  • Supporting Frome Area CLT in its efforts to identify land and build social homes; 

  • Supporting campaigns by Shelter and others to persuade government to fund the building of 150,000 new social homes each year for 20 years. 

Please consider signing Shelter’s petition ‘Build More Social Housing’ – by going to https://england.shelter.org.uk/support_us/campaigns/build_more_social_housing 

A copy of Mendip DC’s proposed social housing delivery programme can be seen here: https://www.mendip.gov.uk/media/25158/Item-11-Social-Housing-Delivery-Programme/pdf/Item_11_Social_Housing_Delivery_Programme.pdf?m=637286974869770000 

You can become a member of Frome Area CLT by going to its website, filling in an application form, and paying £1 for a share: https://fromeareaclt.org/become-a-member/ 

Roger Saunders / Fair Housing for Frome / 9th July 2020

Get in Touch