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Affordable housing looked dead in 2016, but Brexit vote has revived hopes

The Housing Act threatened to sound the death knell for social housing, but there’s been a change of heart as Theresa May reached No 10

Demonstrations against the Housing Act. Shelter estimated that London councils would be particularly hard hit by the act. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Brexit and Donald Trump aside, it’s been a tumultuous year all round, and no less so in housing. Later eclipsed by other seismic news events, for several weeks earlier in the year, housing grabbed the headlines.

As David Cameron’s government sought to push through the housing bill, it became clear to casual observers, as well as seasoned housing experts and professionals, that the government either had no idea what they were doing, or simply had no desire to do anything other than enrich a few people in housing at the expense of the majority.

For the housing sector, the biggest battle was against the housing and planning bill, before it became an act. Though many of the policy changes contained in the bill seemed extremely technical, there was a level of public interest and understanding. The housing crisis is far-reaching in its effects, rather than confined to a narrow and often-attacked socio-economic or social group. It’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t feel the housing crisis has touched their life in some way.

But if the beginning of the year dampened the spirits of everyone fighting for fairer housing, the end of the year had to some extent proved housing activists right, and provided a faint glimmer of hope. The first half of the year was dominated by the battles over the bill, which threatened to sound the death knell for social housing.

Housing needs will be pushed to one side in the confusion over Brexit Dawn Foster Dawn Foster Read more Housing associations were railroaded into agreeing to voluntarily extend right to buy to their tenants, in turn councils were told their higher value properties would be forcibly sold to line the treasury coffers to enable right to buy’s extensions. No details on what would be classed as “higher value” were forthcoming – detail was not something the bill’s authors seemed concerned with. But Shelter estimated that London councils would be particularly hard hit, meaning that the very councils most stretched by the housing crisis and dealing with the increase in private rental sector evictions would be forced to sell many properties that could house locals, and not see a penny off the back of the sale.

But with Brexit came a change of leader, and as Theresa May stepped into No 10, David Cameron and George Osborne’s plans for housing were up for reconsideration. The extension of right to buy was placed into limbo, with the turmoil and financial stress of Brexit blamed for the decision not to push the change through. In turn, councils pointed out, the sale of high value properties would not be needed, since the policy it was designed to finance had bitten the dust.

Analysis What is pay to stay and who will be affected? The government’s policy of rent hikes for working people in social housing will hit thousands of low earners across the country. We crunch the numbers Read more The death of “pay to stay” – the controversial policy that required tenants on low pay to fork out extra rent to avoid eviction – also bit the dust. Many people got in touch to share their fears of being affected, and Tom’s story, of trying to raise his young baby with his wife in the family home, rightly angered many readers. As Colin Wiles pointed out, very little in the Housing and Planning Act looked stable after the main pillars had been knocked down by May and chancellor Philip Hammond’s scrutiny. In many ways this was inevitable: almost every directive in the 200-plus page report required committees and departments to work out the details and finances post-fact, akin to a student handing in their maths homework by repeatedly scrawling “work it out yourself” in lieu of bothering to provide the answers. Naturally, when scrutiny was applied, it became clear it was unworkable, and with Cameron and Osborne out of office, the ideological will to force it through was no longer there.

The reduced benefit cap for large families remains a huge concern in housing, as is the local housing allowance cap, which leaves thousands of households with a rent gap between what they receive in housing benefit and what their rent actually is. For these households, many affected by both, paying for housing will become increasingly difficult.

So for 2017, what are we left with? A failed housing act, and a housing crisis that’s still with us. And though it looked for all intents and purposes as though the battle for social housing was lost after the bill passed into law, the victory came later, in the failed implementation.

It’s not too optimistic or outlandish to suggest that the reality of the housing crisis will force the government to admit that social housing needs to be heavily invested in, with a Labour mayor in London, the most stretched city, and the passage of the homelessness reduction bill through the parliament. Perhaps next year is the year social housing’s cheerleaders, rather than big developers, are listened to.

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