Comment: Housing reforms need cooperation to succeed

David Williams is an executive director of affordable housing provider Circle Anglia
David Williams is an executive director of affordable housing provider Circle Anglia

Over recent weeks, the coalition has announced a raft of policy proposals regarding how housing should be delivered in the UK. Policies vary from the emotive debate to end secure tenancy for life for future social housing tenants, via plans to financially reward councils that build new homes, to reforms to the housing benefit and planning system. Despite the avalanche of proposals, all commentators, including housing minister Grant Shapps, recognise the real crux of the problem is how we deliver enough new affordable homes to help those in desperate need of a new place to live.

By David Williams

Investment in building new affordable homes has reduced significantly and unfortunately does not look set to change in the near future. Coupled with this is an ever-increasing waiting list for housing - currently one in 12 of all households in England are on a housing or transfer waiting list.

While Circle Anglia is committed to delivering our development pipeline of creating over 2,500 new homes, we are acutely aware that building homes alone will not help improve a key issue - the ability of social housing residents to meet their changing housing needs.

Challenging external factors make it critical that the social housing sector focuses on making better use of existing homes. One way of doing this is to make it easier for social housing tenants to move home easily within the sector - whether to seek employment, care for sick or elderly relatives, or escape overcrowding.

The lack of supply of affordable homes has a detrimental impact on the mobility of social housing tenants - many languish on transfer lists for more than two years. If we don't address this issue now it will not only be a big cost to those who can't move, but to the economy. Our recent research conducted by the Human City Institute investigated the social and economic costs of social housing tenants who want to move but can't. Our research estimates half a million of the UK's 3.9 million social households are victims of the Social Housing Squeeze and their inability to move is costing the UK economy £542 million a year. That's the equivalent of building 50,000 new social homes, or £2.5 billion, over the course of this parliament.

Consequently, we welcome Grant Shapps' recent announcement to set up a National Affordable House Exchange database. Circle Anglia recently campaigned for exactly this and we look forward to working with the government to make this database work effectively.

Mutual exchange is one of many creative solutions that should be looked at to improve mobility. We know from our experience with Circle Anglia's not for profit mutual exchange service - - how effective mutual exchange is. In a survey of users we found that once people had registered with the service 80% of people moved within six months, and some within weeks.

A government-led national database, which all landlords are obliged to sign up to, will open up the service to all social housing tenants, dramatically increasing the potential number of opportunities people have to exchange homes. This can only be a good thing. However, something the coalition must consider is that this database cannot purely be accessed via the web. Online literacy and access to the internet must be considered. A funded national telephone helpline would be one way of ensuring all social housing households can benefit from this service.

We also need to consider how to incentivise people to move, and better link mobility to health and work initiatives. The cost saving to the UK is not a cost we can ignore in this time of austerity. For example our research reveals that a substantial cost of the annual £542 million to the economy comes from care and support costs - £305 million - that could be borne by family members as opposed to the state.

Mutual exchange is also an attractive way of supporting Iain Duncan Smith's recent consultation document - 21st Century Welfare - to help the long-term unemployed back into work. We estimate that the economic cost of people not being able to move to take up work is £48 million. Factors include the ongoing costs of welfare payments and lost tax revenues. Having a national house exchange database will enable more people to expand their employment opportunities in different areas.

Within this it's important to distinguish thinking about incentives for landlords and housing authorities to more easily facilitated steps for people who wish to move. One of the biggest challenges for tenants who want to move is the allocations system. So a clearer link must be made between the way the allocation system prioritises people and the potential benefits to the wider economy.

While the economic cost savings are compelling, the ultimate aim for us is to help more people to enhance their life chances by giving them more freedom and flexibility to meet their changing housing needs - for whatever reason. It's without a doubt a challenging and fast-moving time for the sector. There are some sensitive issues to be addressed and open debate to be had with our residents at the heart of these discussions.

While the big figures cannot be overlooked, I would urge a note of caution. We have to fully involve the sector and residents in consultations on any changes in policy to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. It is our collective responsibility to remember that these are people's homes that are being debated. A decent, safe and secure place to live is the absolute starting point for success in life, not just for the most vulnerable in society - but all of society. Now is the time for the housing sector to work together closely with the coalition government to ensure that any changes that are made will positively affect the lives of millions of tenants.

David Williams is executive director (strategy and new business) for affordable housing provider Circle Anglia

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