Last edited 23 Jan 2020

Housing policy

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Housing policy refers to the activities and legislation which a government, central or local authority implements or intends to implement in relation to the construction of homes and connected social issues such as renting, taxation, homelessness and so on.

It is a term that is bound up with both public and private sectors, as a government may use legislation to determine how the private sector operates in the provision of housing. For example, some local housing authorities enforce Section 106 agreements which, amongst other things, may require private developers to ensure a certain ratio of their housing is made available as affordable housing. Private developers may also have their own housing policies eg to build sustainably or for particular social groups - but as each developer’s goals may be different the term ‘housing policy’ is usually associated with government policy.

In most countries, governments provide social housing. The degree to which governments do this depends on the country concerned: in the UK since the 1980s, there has been relatively little new social housing built as a result of the housing policies of successive Conservative governments. This has been partly responsible for creating a shortage of affordable housing with an associated increase in house prices and rents. However, it also resulted in many new home owners, as occupants were allowed to purchase their council houses.

Past labour governments – especially that of Harold Wilson (1964-1970) – had an expressed policy of public housing – or ‘council housing’ – built by district and borough councils. Housing policy from around 1950 to the late seventies focussed on the construction of tower blocks to replace much of the unfit housing that blighted UK towns and cities and to satisfy demand following the destruction of the second world war.

From around the late seventies onwards, when the technical, environmental and social problems of some tower blocks became apparent, they fell out of favour and governments returned to low-rise housing, much of which incorporated a garden at the back and an element of defensible space at the front.

From around 1968, successive governments emphasised the benefits of home ownership, first by the Option Mortgage Scheme which gave those on low incomes subsidies toward mortgage payments.

Housing policy under Margaret Thatcher went further, when council tenants were encouraged to buy their property outright at well-below market house prices. This policy generated much controversy.

Housing policy can also determine the level of rent in a society – past Labour governments have instigated rent controls whereby tenants in the private-rented sector could take landlords to a tribunal if they felt they were paying an unfair rent: if the tribunal concurred, the rent would be reduced to a market level for a period of two years after which it could be reviewed.

Government may also use housing associations (HA) as another prong of housing policy. Usually non-profit organisations, HAs build, operate and maintain social housing and so taking some of the pressure to build away from government. They continue to build an increasing share of public housing.

Housing policy may also be linked to other initiatives to ensure a smoother-running society. In its State of the Nation Report (September 2019), the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) argued that the development of regional infrastructure strategies could ensure that housing and infrastructure are planned in tandem. If, for instance, government were to encourage the development of regional infrastructure strategies involving joined-up planning, housing developments could be delivered with the necessary infrastructure to support them.

Governments may also influence things such as building performance through mechanisms such as the building regulations, planning policy, controls on landlords and minimum standards.

Recent housing policy has included commitments to deliver large numbers of new homes to tackle a perceived housing crisis. For example, in 2018, the government confirmed that it would deliver 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s, along with plans to speed up the planning system and to make better use of land and vacant buildings to provide new homes. Ref https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-new-housing-measures

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