Time to put key workers at the heart of our housing strategy

The housing market must be reformed to support the essential workers we have relied on throughout this crisis, writes Elspeth MacKenzie

January feels a long time ago now. But just four short months ago, the UK entered 2020 with a stable economy, employment levels recorded at over 76%, and a housing market that had its strongest start to a year since 2015.

As a sector, we had challenges on the horizon, but with strong finances and risk mapped strategies, we were geared up to overcome them. 2020 was to be the year the social housing sector delivered quality homes and services, at scale, in every corner of the UK.

But the arrival of coronavirus has changed the outlook of 2020 for everyone.  We are now facing one of the most extraordinary periods in our history; a global pandemic that has infected hundreds of thousands of people, whilst crippling health systems and choking economies throughout the world. 

The crisis has brought with it a real reckoning for society, creating opportunities for us to pause, rethink and refocus on what – and who – is important to each of us. We’ve seen a rise in the importance placed on “society”, and a clearer recognition and support for the people that play such an important part in our daily lives – often quietly, invisibly, and all too often forgotten.    

It’s been visible to so many, that over the past few weeks the UK’s response to the global pandemic has been fought by an army of essential workers, each playing their vital part on the battle’s front line.

These essential workers are our teachers, our NHS staff and care workers. They are also our engineers, train drivers, refuse collectors, postmen and women, delivery drivers, retail assistants and farm workers.  In their thousands, these workers have sacrificed their own safety in order that we can focus on keeping safe at home and seeing through this pandemic.

Not since World War II, has the battle for the UK’s survival been fought for so many, by so few.

But through all this good, the crisis has also shown us that our housing market isn’t working. Too many of these essential workers – the true heroes of the UK’s coronavirus battle – lack the housing that they deserve. Too often, they’ve been priced out of their local housing market and forced to accept accommodation that isn’t fit for purpose, or battle with long commutes into their places of work.  

Historically, the UK’s housing policy has focused on the need to build a safety net for the most economically vulnerable in society. Though we have done this with some varying success, we have built a safety net for some and allowed others to fall through the cracks.  

Housing policy should neither be a one size fits all, nor prioritise one need over another – but focus on supporting all housing needs in all their forms.    

We should resist calls to return to our roots, but instead look to grow these roots so that we can scale up and foster a housing market that meets the needs of the many not the few.

If we start from the principle that everyone deserves a high quality home that is affordable to them – from a single parent family, to lowest paid student nurse or an experienced transport engineer on a medium income – then we can begin to focus on what is important and target support where it is needed.

The solution may be increasing the supply of council housing, reducing the barriers to shared ownership, increasing the income threshold for affordable rent, or scaling up PRS. Or it be some combination of all of these, where the local demand profile can be supported by the right tenure.

But above all, the housing sector needs to find innovations to meet its local demand, and to do so we need more freedoms, and less top down control. We need to build the right homes, set the right rents, and respond to our local demand.

In some areas this will mean providing more truly affordable rents, whilst in other areas of the country it will mean increasing the supply of shared ownership where there is local demand. 

Whatever the solution, it is paramount that the housing sector emerges from the coronavirus pandemic with a renewed focus on delivering high quality homes that are affordable to all in society, and never again leave anyone forgotten or behind.  

This post was originally published by Inside Housing on 7th May 2020