Q&A: Chris Hancock

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

As the government publishes its social housing green paper, Chris Hancock, head of housing at charity Crisis, gives his view on how it has pushed the debate forward

After Grenfell and the shortfalls between social landlord and tenants that it exposed, does the social housing green paper go far enough?

There are some positives to take from the fact that the government’s addressing the challenges facing tenants – especially in light of the Grenfell tragedy, which highlighted the erosion of trust between tenants and social landlords. To their credit, the consultation did involve policymakers travelling the country to speak to tenants, but consistent policy isn’t helped by the fact that housing ministers chop and change: we’ve had two since they instigated the consultation.  

Could proposed measures help alleviate the impact of high housing costs and rents on poverty?

There’s comfort to be gained from the fact that local authorities aren’t being forced to sell high value council homes any more, but there’s still nothing that would allow them to borrow in order to build. It’s weird: there’s a lot written in the Green Paper about addressing the stigma of being a housing tenant but the carrot of ownership is still dangled by government as the better option. This symbolic hierarchy remains extremely powerful.

How can you start addressing your stated shortfall of 90,000 social rent homes a year?

If you go back 40 years, those kinds of figures were being achieved year-on-year – and even surpassed when the political will existed to build them. The touted cost to the public purse of doing this is disingenuous; our current housing benefits bill to keep people in private rented housing amounts to £27bn a year. Imagine if that sum was going towards building homes for affordable rent.

Failing a pledge to meet housing need, what single act by the government could progress things?

The policy of disconnecting local housing benefit allowances from market rent values has had a very detrimental effect. People losing their jobs suddenly and being unable to afford the shortfall between what they can claim and market rents is the biggest single cause of homelessness. Benefit allowance levels were supposed to make 30% of local rents affordable, but the truth is that it’s way below that. A recent report from the Borough of Brent put the upper benefit allowance as making 2% of properties in the borough affordable. Re-linking benefit levels to actual market rents would be a start! 


 

Ben Derbyshire on the impact of Brexit on housing markets

Peaks and troughs, especially extreme ones, are never good. Potentially they reduce prices for first time buyers but that can plunge a lot of borrowers into negative equity. The RIBA would like to see the government establish counter cyclical investment strategies such as investing public money, or permitting its use to help provide socially rented housing at scale. With housing provision resting entirely on market forces a collapse in values would be much more serious without an investment mechanism to counteract it. Last time there was a crash, the HCA under Bob Kerslake moved heaven and earth to improve grant rates and to approve publicly funded schemes, mostly through the Housing Association Network, and to buy properties from housebuilders. That kept housing supply flowing and rescued the industry from annihilation. 

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