Government plans to build on firm foundations

 

New Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis is determined to provide the stimulus the social housing sector needs, while ensuring value for money for the tax payer.


Brandon LewisThere’s a simple mission at the heart of the social housing sector, and it’s one with widespread support. As Brandon Lewis, Housing and Planning Minister, commented at this year’s National Housing Federation conference, “We all want a better housing market, which delivers more homes that people want.”

The sector does appear to be unified in its aspirations, and receptive to change from the top down. Brandon Lewis was appointed Housing and Planning Minister following David Cameron’s Cabinet reshuffle in July. His new role combines two remits, with housing and planning portfolios having previously been separately managed.

With planning difficulties often having an impact on the rate of house building, it’s hoped that the change will lead to stronger policies and faster development. Brandon Lewis is also a Minister of State, which gives him greater authority and significant input into policy than his predecessors.

Optimism and growth

Things are looking positive. New investment has been channelled into every area of the housing market and interest rates have been kept low for both investors and home buyers. “You asked for certainty about investment policy and we announced new funding up to 2018,” Lewis noted in his speech to the National Housing Federation. “And to provide certainty about social rents we introduced a rent policy to take us up to 2025.”

This has contributed to fresh optimism and growth in the construction sector, which is hiring new workers at the fastest rate since 1997. Prospective homebuyers can more easily get onto the housing ladder (the Help to Buy scheme has helped around 53,000 households in England get on the property ladder with a fraction of the deposit they would normally require, for example); rogue operators in the rental market are being challenged and tenants empowered with the know-how and confidence to make rental deals that suit their needs.

335,000 new homes by 2018

Investment figures infographic

From 2011 to 2015, the Government will have invested £4.5bn in affordable housing through the Affordable Homes Programme and other commitments from the previous National Affordable Housing Programme. The majority of the new housing will be available as ‘Affordable Rent’; a more flexible offering giving both tenants and landlords greater choices, with some available for affordable home ownership, supported housing and in some circumstances, social rent.

“We are now well on track to meet our ambition to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes over four years,” said Brandon Lewis. “Taken together our affordable housing programmes will deliver 335,000 new homes by 2018, and achieve the fastest rate of affordable house building for at least two decades.”

Foundations to build on

There is, he noted, “much still to be done” and while the headlines are positive, there are still challenges to be addressed. “Public spending must still be constrained so we need to be innovative and secure value for money on every pound of taxpayers’ money we spend on housing,” he said.

The Affordable Housing Guarantee Scheme, which pledges up to £10bn of debt for housing providers to build both private rented and affordable housing, is an example. “We’re already supporting almost 6,000 new homes by guaranteeing over £630m of debt for 16 housing associations,” Lewis said, encouraging all registered providers to explore the scheme which he describes as “open for business”.

Another new initiative is custom-build housing, where those wanting to build their own homes can work with a developer to achieve their objective, being as involved, or uninvolved, in the actual building process as they want.

The role of innovation

Encouraging innovative construction techniques, such as offsite construction and modular assembly, can deliver high quality affordable homes, very quickly. “A fifth of all the homes built through the first phase of funding will use these innovative techniques,” Lewis explained, “and it’s an attractive scenario for providers of affordable homes as they can access rental streams more quickly.”

Both large and small undertakings will benefit from Government input. The Large Sites Infrastructure Fund has already helped to jump-start several major house building projects while the £525m Builders’ Finance Fund will restart or speed up housing developments of between 15 and 250 units that have stalled for lack of development finance.

Affordable housing is a high priority with the Government who are supporting schemes to deliver community improvements. With support for housing providers through wider capital funding programmes, the drive to build new houses is widely supported and the sector is changing to facilitate improvements. But, warned Brandon Lewis, “there is still a long way to go to build the homes this country needs.”

A broad housing strategy

It is, of course, all part of a concentrated, cohesive approach to the strategic development of the housing market. “This Government is committed to delivering long-term economic stability which is why we’ve pulled out the stops and got Britain building, with planning permission granted for 230,000 homes across England in the last 12 months and housebuilding levels now at their highest since 2007,” said Lewis. “Improving the housing market remains a key part of our long-term economic plan.”

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