We need to talk about social housing

Leanne Wood sets out priority actions for meeting housing needs in Wales

The Public Policy Institute for Wales estimates that we need between 3,300 and 4,200 additional units of social housing every year.


But between 1997 and 2007 only an average of 825 new units of social housing were built each year. That average figure only increases to 850 each year over the past ten years. We are only building 850 homes for social housing a year when we need thousands.


So what’s going wrong?


Affordable housing

First of all, we need to be honest. Too often we’ve seen the terms ‘affordable housing’ used interchangeably with ‘social housing’ – hence the Welsh Government’s claim of being on track for delivering 20,000 affordable homes. This is misleading.


Currently, ‘affordable’ is defined within the context of TAN2 – a definition that also includes homes owned through shared equity schemes, including Help to Buy.


This means that since the 2016 election, when the target of 20,000 affordable homes was introduced, that the 3,458 homes sold through ‘help to buy’ since will count towards that target. This is a particular issue when we consider that 1,390 of those homes – that’s 40% – were sold for over £200,000.


That’s a misuse of the term ‘affordable’. How many first time buyers can really save up and afford to buy homes for that price?


A second issue is the tendency of developers to water down commitments to provide affordable housing after planning permission has been obtained. According to Stats Wales, local authorities have granted planning permission for housing developments that should have resulted in the provision of 13,355 affordable houses over the past decade. But only 6,746 have actually been built – just over 50% of what should have happened. Developers simply threaten local authorities with going to the planning inspectorate – not based in Wales, of course – unless local authorities agree to help make the development profitable. Very often this results in ‘affordable’ homes being unaffordable for many.


Plaid Cymru is proposing to create a target of 20,000 new social housing homes in a Plaid Cymru term of government – we will distinguish between social housing provision and provision in the private sector.


We want to make private sector housing more affordable, for both people renting and who want to buy – and our consultation paper on the future of housing supply contains many ideas for doing that.


But we need to focus on social housing in the proper sense of the term – homes owned by Housing Associations and Local Authorities.


We badly need more.


Social housing investment

Homelessness has worsened dramatically over the past decade and Plaid Cymru are strongly in favour a Housing First policy to ensure everyone gets a home and to put an end to rough sleeping – as outlined in the comprehensive and excellent report by Crisis that shows homelessness is a political choice.


This plan requires the building of more Social Housing.


Austerity and cuts have prevented the building of more Social Housing. For example, social security cuts, in particular the cumulative impact of housing benefit changes, have changed the business model of Housing Associations. They have faced reduced incomes from rents – which may have jeopardised investment in more homes. They have also had to face increased administration costs in chasing more arrears and of course the substantial costs of re-housing people affected by cuts such as the bedroom tax. No wonder they have faced difficulties in increasing housing stock. Local Authorities too have faced considerable financial challenges, which makes providing the essential public services required to support development difficult.


It’s also quite clear that relying on ‘affordable’ housing commitments or Section 106 agreements with housing developers is not delivering.


We have to remove the constraints from Housing Associations and Local Authorities and allow them borrow substantially more to create new housing. Borrowing for the finance of new housing is one of the least risky forms of public sector debt, and it is preferable to have our pension funds invested in this safe asset class over fossil fuels.


But we have to also avoid the mistakes of the past and creating “ghettos” of social housing that are separate from other forms of housing.


It isn’t just the new homes that are important, it’s the public services that surround the communities we create. Austerity poses several problems for local authorities in doing that, so much so that many new facilities like playgrounds are now only being built through Section 106 agreements.


This weekend we’ve seen the flaws in this approach, with the news that a housing development in South London has excluded children from the social housing section of the development from the playground provided through construction of an impenetrable hedge.


Amidst the buck passing of responsibility, the local authority has said a much smaller space is fine because it meets the legal requirements for play areas. The developer has said that social housing tenants don’t pay maintenance so their children shouldn’t use the larger play area.


How did we allow our political discourse around social housing to descend to such a pathetic level?


Plaid Cymru wants to see an overhaul of the development planning process. We currently have a process of allocating sites for development, and a laissez faire attitude towards who builds on them, with little consideration of the kinds of public services and infrastructure required to make the communities sustainable and work correctly.


We propose a co-operative approach to planning in which developers, housing associations and local authorities work collaboratively on new developments and the LDP process as a whole, with both suitable locations identified and the public services required to make communities work identified. We will set a target for any new housing developments to have at least 40% social housing.


We want to end the divisions caused by sticking the social housing one side of the road, and the private sector housing the other. We want genuinely mixed communities of all tenures supported by public services.


It’s an approach incompatible with austerity, but one compatible with meeting the actual housing needs of Wales, not just the needs of developers.


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Leanne Wood is Shadow Minister for Housing and Social Justice

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