Boris Johnson yesterday announced that the number of affordable homes being built in London – 10,092 – has doubled from the previous year. While this is obviously a welcome step in the right direction, we’ve got to throw in a couple of notes of caution.
Firstly, it is true that the number of housing starts in 2012-13 more than doubled, but that’s partly because the number of homes begun in 2011-12 was – and we believe this is the technical term used in the construction industry – piss poor. According to figures from the Homes and Communities Agency, there were just 4,372 starts between 1 April 2011-31 March 2012. This compares with 16,331 starts in 2010-2011.
If we look at the numbers of homes completed, the 8,114 new homes created in 2012-2013 doubtless reflects the low number of starts the previous year. Completions came to 16,176 in 2011-2012, and 12,487 in 2010-2011. Summer 2011 marked a transition point between one building programme ending and another starting, which is one reason why the starts for 2011-2012 were so low. It’s also worth pointing out that the national housebuilding scheme is backloaded, meaning that the bulk of the new homes in this four-year plan won’t be built until 2014-15. Increasing the number of homes built year-on-year is just how the scheme (should) work.
And then there’s the other issue of what constitutes affordable housing. A couple of years ago, the amount of rent that could be charged for an affordable home was increased, and can now be up to 80% of market rents. (Housing associations have to use the extra money raised towards building homes, reducing the amount of central government grant needed.) But that does mean the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets on hearing the phrase ‘affordable home’ isn’t necessarily matched by reality; although housing associations are trying to keep rents down – for example, London and Quadrant’s rents range between 30%-80% – so social housing will still be less expensive than renting privately, it’s still likely to be more expensive than it used to be.
But even all this building won’t meet London’s housing needs. Last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated the capital would have a housing gap of 325,000 by 2025, pushing house prices and rents up higher and higher, taking welfare bills with it and exacerbating overcrowding and the difficulties for low income (and, frankly, middle income) Londoners. Pretty much any discussion of London’s problems comes down to one issue: it’s housing, stupid. We need more of it. Now.