The Housing Crisis: Why we need more social housing

England has a housing crisis. Not enough homes are being built, with a particular lack of social and affordable housing for those who are most at need in society. Analysis of the official figures from Shelter show that of the 1.15 million households currently on a waiting list for social housing, over 300,000 have been waiting for over ten years. 

This is due to an overall decline in the number of social houses, with the number of social homes for rent falling below 300,000 in England, the lowest in recorded history. A report showed that 92% of local authorities were not building enough affordable housing. This has driven households to private, temporary rentals, which often have high rental prices and poor living conditions. Often when ‘affordable’ housing is built, it ends up linked to the area housing market and selling outwith the affordable pricing range for those in low income households.

Housing Statistics from Homes England showed that in 2019 there was a 19% reduction in homes completed for affordable rent in comparison to the previous year. There is an urgent need for more housing that is truly affordable and available to be rented as social housing.

What is social housing?

When we talk about social housing, we mean flats, bungalows and houses that are managed by local councils or not-for-profit housing associations. You will often hear them referred to as council housing. Social housing is governed to ensure that it is affordable, secure and of a decent living quality. It is cheaper to rent than privately owned and rented accommodation and provides long term tenancy options, giving renters a chance to settle and make a home, in comparison to private lets which are usually on a 6-12 month basis. 

The alternative to social housing is often low quality, over-crowded properties or highly overpriced private tenancy agreements. Tenants that rent privately are often worried about reporting any faults of issues as it puts them at risk of being evicted. This compounds the low quality living conditions, which can be detrimental to both mental and physical health. The worst case scenario that can result from these housing situations is homelessness. Of course none of these should be viewed as a suitable solution for low income households.

To be deemed ‘social housing’ it has to have a few features. These are:

  1. Social housing has to be truly affordable
  2. Social housing should be allocated on the basis of need
  3. Social housing needs to be a long term solution, not subject to short term (6-12 months) tenancy agreements 
  4. Social housing should be managed by councils or housing association

Homes being rented for ‘social’ purposes are at an all time low in recorded history, which is pushing people to financially strain and poor quality accommodation.

Why is more social housing needed in England?

What is causing the housing crisis in England? Fundamentally, it is caused by a lack of affordable housing and options for stable homes, which as we know is at an all time low. But there are multiple factors that are contributing to the lack of affordable housing, that increases the need for social housing. These reasons are:

  1. House prices are rising: House prices are on average 8 times the average salary, making it more difficult for people to afford home ownership than it has been previously. 
  2. Private rentals are expensive: More people than ever are renting privately. Private rentals are expensive and unstable with the constant worry of eviction and relatively short-term tenancy agreements.
  3. Homelessness is on the rise: The result of the above is that many people are being forced out of their homes altogether. These people will then have to wait years for temporary accommodation and can end up sleeping on the street. 

If these factors are not dealt with they will continue to decline and social housing will become more necessary. The only way to alleviate the housing pressure is to increase the supply of subsidised housing.

What are living standards and why are they important?

At its core, the housing crisis is a lack of affordable homes and an ability to provide a ‘roof over your head’. But social housing is more than that, it has to do with living standards and space. Space is what gives us the opportunity to relax, cook, sleep and socialise in comfort. It is central to humans idea of well-being and belonging. Space standards aren’t a new concept. But they’ve come and gone over the last 100 years. 

In 1961 the Parker Morris Space Standards were introduced to close the gap between those on higher and lower incomes. The aim of these standards were to ensure that everyone had access to a clean, warm and spacious space to call home. A space that provided more than just a roof, but that provided a space to eat, relax, socialise and sleep in comfort. These have since been abolished, and those who manage to access social housing will be allocated bedrooms based on necessary requirements. Which is perfectly reasonable as long as the housing meets other basic standards.

Instead of focussing solely on how to reduce the space that people are living in in order to reduce costs, we need to focus on the cost of not having enough. Limited space can have an effect on mental and physical well-being. And so the cost has to be based on more than merely financial. The standards were originally introduced to protect the most vulnerable people in our society including those on low income or disabled people. We need to ensure that when social housing is built and refurbished it meets the minimum standard for space to ensure mental and physical well-being. 

What are the current space standards for social housing?

Planning policies are there to ensure that all developments:

  • function well and add to the overall quality of the area, not just for the short term but over the lifetime of the development;
  • are visually attractive as a result of good architecture, layout and appropriate and effective landscaping;
  • are sympathetic to local character and history, including the surrounding built environment and landscape setting, while not preventing or discouraging appropriate innovation or change (such as increased densities); 
  • establish or maintain a strong sense of place, using the arrangement of streets, spaces, building types and materials to create an attractive, welcoming and distinctive places to live, work and visit;
  • optimise the potential of the site to accommodate and sustain an appropriate amount and mix of development (including green and other public space) and support local facilities and transport networks; 
  • create places that are safe, inclusive and accessible and which promote health and well-being, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users46; and where crime and disorder, and the fear of crime, do not undermine the quality of life or community cohesion and resilience.

Whilst the generic criteria for place shaping is welcomed through the National Planning Policy Framework (2019), minimum space standards can differ among local authorities, i.e. some Councils have adopted standards and some don’t. The Nationally Described Space Standards (NDSS) deal with the space dwellings and set out the requirements for gross internal floor area of new dwellings at a defined level of occupancy. As well as floor areas for key parts of the home. However these are optional for Councils to use if they are linked to a local policy however the NDSS do not consider the need for an appropriate level of outside space.

With the lack of space standards this does leave the door open for any housing developments to be of a standard which doesn’t reflect occupancy levels and could promote overcrowding. 

In conclusion

England has a housing crisis. Increased housing prices are making it harder than ever to own a home. This plus a reliance on private landlords and a lack of social housing means more and more people end up without a home. We need to do more to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable in society are protected. And more social housing with good space standards needs to be built to bridge the gap between the available housing and those who need it most. 

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Social Housing