Next PM should focus on ‘housing, housing, housing’

The G15 lobbies for housing associations which build and maintain social housing
The G15 lobbies for housing associations which build and maintain social housing

In 1997, Tony Blair led the Labour Party to a landslide victory with education at the heart of his agenda. His messaging was brilliant in its simplicity: “education, education, education”. With a general election to win, Sir Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak would benefit from adopting a similar approach but with ‘housing, housing, housing’ at the centre.

Make no mistake, the current housing crisis is not an easy fix. Inflation, uncertainty over rents, a revolving door of Housing Ministers and years of short-term decision-making have deprived housing associations of the clarity and security needed to maintain and build the homes that Londoners need.

Conception to completion of new housing is measured in years, not weeks or months. While homes are being built right now, planning and development of future builds for many of the housing associations I represent has almost ground to a halt, with scarce funds increasingly being diverted into the important refurbishment and regeneration of existing properties, in line with the UK’s Net-Zero strategy.

As the representative body of London’s largest not-for-profit housing associations (the G15), we have tried to raise this issue with successive governments, yet they have failed to heed our warnings. Unless there are serious policy changes, the supply of affordable housing will collapse. Now, after years of prevarication, we have reached the cliff's edge. We know from the past that London’s housing market is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the UK.

This is having a huge cost on London and the wider economy, and the Londoners who need homes. It is also a huge opportunity waiting to be seized by the next government with the vision and foresight to take advantage.

New research from my colleagues at G15 has quantified the benefits of housing the 328,000 households on London’s social housing waiting list, revealing a social value of £7.7 billion that would be unlocked if all these Londoners were provided with social housing. Amid the cost-of-living crisis and soaring house prices, social housing has become essential.

It provides stable and affordable homes for the workforce that keeps London running, including hospitality staff and nurses. Furthermore, increasing social housing availability helps alleviate pressure on the private rental sector, reducing housing costs for both councils and renters, and ensuring a more balanced and sustainable housing market.

Housing associations already provide almost 300,000 socially rented homes in London. Given proper regulatory support, we are primed to provide many more. Critical to this is our ability to forecast investment and borrowing over the medium to long term – something made increasingly difficult by a succession of short-term decisions on how fair levels of rental income are calculated.

In recent times my sector has faced some reputational challenges– and we know we can always improve - yet it is easy to forget that we are not-for-profit organisations set up to support people in housing need with homes at below-market rent.

All the money we make is reinvested into maintaining and building more affordable homes and delivering vital services for our residents, ranging from domestic violence refuges and homeless hostels to community centres and training and apprenticeship programmes. All areas that have seen dramatic cuts from cash-strapped local authorities in recent years.

It is essential to recognise that subsidised housing needs subsidy and that this investment is not a financial burden on the country, but a future benefit. Without a long-term rent settlement, the supply of affordable housing will dwindle, making it impossible to meet the needs of those who rely on it. Only when an ambitious government listens to these needs can we address this critical issue and tap into a reservoir of potential support.

With the right oversight and regulatory framework, and greater certainty on key topics – all at minimal cost to the government – housing associations can play a pivotal role in solving the housing crisis, delivering affordable homes, and contributing to the economy. This is not just a strategy for winning votes; it’s a blueprint for building a better, fairer future for all.

:: Fiona Fletcher-Smith, is G15 chair and Group Chief Executive of L&Q