If you want to check out the government’s investment plans for housing, where do you look? Until a few years ago the details were all in one place. But new initiatives are now announced and old ones changed in every budget and spending review. And remember that in the last 15 months we’ve had four of those, with the possibility of another one looming post-referendum. What’s more, while governments traditionally focused most investment through the equivalent of the Affordable Homes Programmes (AHP) now housing-related initiatives pop up in different places, many controlled directly by the Treasury. As more effort is put into stimulating the private market, the AHP has become much less significant, and loans and guarantees to the private sector much more so.
But until last month few were aware how far this shift had gone. The UK Housing Review has been tracking government spending on housing for 24 years, and aims to present the full range of schemes all in one place (even if the government no longer does). The latest assessment, produced in collaboration with Communities and Local Government, is set out in the UK Housing Review briefing paper launched last week at Housing 2016.
Astonishingly, this shows that out of total housing investment of over £44bn between now and 2020, only about £2bn will now go to sub-market rented housing. Another, bigger part of the budget will go to Starter Homes and shared ownership housing – some £6.4bn. All of the rest, whether grants, loans or guarantees, is directed at helping first-time buyers or otherwise stimulating the private market.
Only 18 months ago, the UK Housing Review 2015 had reported a much more evenly balanced investment programme. Although not strictly comparable because the timeframe has changed, the coalition had earmarked about £16bn for affordable (mainly rented) housing over the period 2011/12 – 2015/16, and some £30bn in support for the private market. Arrival of a Conservative government has led to a very different pattern of spending, which the Chartered Institute of Housing believes is “the biggest ever programme of government support for private housing”.
Inside Housing’s Jules Birch rightly points out that even this assessment ignores government support for homeownership through generous tax reliefs. But tax is money foregone, whereas the £44bn could be money spent if all of the loans and guarantees are taken up. Just look at the spending on savings schemes (ISAs) for first-time buyers: their cash bonuses to savers could cost £4.2bn, roughly the same amount as is being spent through what’s now called the Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme.
Elsewhere the briefing paper points out that this massive shift in resources is aimed at delivering one million new homes in five years and – over the same time frame – one million extra first-time buyers. But even this commitment is relatively small compared to the overall market, where over £200bn is invested in new mortgage advances every year. There is now real fear that the government may have switched huge sums into propping up the market, and in the end have little to show for it.
Post-referendum, what might it now do? With the prospect of a downturn in construction and in the economy as a whole, government could plan for a counter-cyclical programme of investment. Traditionally the AHP and other programmes have been boosted to invest more money in homes for affordable and social rent. Government could start to plan this now, given that private developers are already curtailing investment. But the current programme is too pro-cyclical, making housing associations too market-dependent. Rebalancing it to create a much greater rented share makes sense, would keep construction going, retain construction capacity, boost the economy and provide much-needed housing for the 30% of the population who are still unlikely to become homeowners.
Original post: Inside Housing