Melanie Rees, Head of Policy and External Affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck we faced a chronic housing shortage. An increasing number of people were experiencing real stress and poverty because they didn’t have a decent, stable place to call home. And many households were stuck in housing that was not only unsuitable and poor quality, but also high cost.

If anything, the pandemic has made things worse. Measures introduced by the government to control the virus’s spread have highlighted the extent of housing inequality in the UK. Lock-down, self-isolation and quarantining, all showed the importance of spacious, well-lit, well-ventilated homes, with private outdoor space, where people can work, learn, rest, play and recover.

Meeting the current and future housing needs of our population should be a huge priority but we are failing to provide anywhere near the number of homes needed each year to meet existing and newly-emerging need – research shows that we need around 300,000 new homes each year with around 90,000 at social rents.

But this isn’t just a numbers game – the homes we build now need to be of the highest possible quality, of the right type, in the right places and, crucially, affordable. We need homes that are well designed, accessible, spacious, environmentally sustainable, affordable to heat, and easy to adapt when household needs change. We need homes that are served by sustainable transport links, in well-designed neighbourhoods and with community spaces.

Meeting the current and future housing needs of our population should be a huge priority but we are failing to provide anywhere near the number of homes needed each year to meet existing and newly-emerging need.

Along with the obvious challenges, there have been some bright spots during the last few months. Top of my list would be the way in which councils and their partners have worked together, with government funding, to get everyone sleeping on the streets into a safe place to stay. Government had committed to end rough sleeping via a five year plan but, in little more than a weekend, around 15,000 people were safely accommodated across the UK, albeit only temporarily – a great example of what’s possible when political will, resources, and local commitment, expertise and action combine.

So where do we go from here?

  • When he delivered his Summer Economic Update on 8 July, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak reported that the economy has retracted by 25 per cent. Economic recovery is undeniably a huge priority. At CIH we believe that building new social housing should be at the heart of government’s plans. It would boost the national and local economies, provide much needed jobs and ensure that local people are well housed. That’s why we’ve joined with the National Housing Federation, the Association of Retained Council Housing, the National Federation of ALMOs and Crisis to launch the Homes at the Heart campaign
  • Councils have a massive role to play in this space by enabling new homes to be built in their local areas and, increasingly, by building themselves. This has taken on new impetus since borrowing restrictions were lifted in October 2018. It’s worth remembering that, when housebuilding was at its peak in the 1960s, councils were building half of the 300,000 homes completed each year. We think that today’s councils could do even more if some barriers could be removed, for example, allowing them to keep all of the money received Right to Buy sales, giving them more time to spend it and allowing them to use it alongside other sources of funding to build new homes
  • Having done an incredible job of bringing people in from the streets, we need action to make sure they don’t return there. We know that councils and their partners are working hard to make sure that people have somewhere to go once their placements in hotels come to an end. But what we really need to see is investment in new social housing of all kinds and a welfare system that helps people to pay their housing costs when they need it. CIH will continue to make the case for this to government
  • We talk about our country’s housing crisis - but different parts of the country experience that crisis differently. In London, the South East and some of our major cities, the acute housing shortage is the main concern while in large parts of the North the main challenge lies in existing homes which are in poor condition and no longer meet modern needs. Here there is a strong case for regenerating homes and neighbourhoods – driven by the people who live there – creating great places to live and much needed jobs for local people. That’s why we want to see regeneration as part of a comprehensive government plan to provide the good quality, genuinely affordable homes that people need 

Without doubt, everyone has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic but we have all experienced it differently, and where we live has played a huge part in how well we have been able to cope with it. Let’s build on the lessons we’ve learned to make sure that everyone has a safe, decent and affordable place to make their home.