Cover Story: Britain must put its housing in order if it truly wants to defeat poverty

Plans laid to end age-old scourge

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has issued society with a challenge for the millennium with its bold strategy to end poverty by 2030. But the organisation’s vision will stand or fall on one critical element – a genuine and joined-up solution to the housing crisis

By Mark Cantrell

First appeared in October/November 2016 Housing magazine

POVERTY: it’s as old as human civilisation, so for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) to call time on this most-ancient of ‘institutions’ is quite a bold declaration. 

During those long millennia of history, the issue of poverty and the poor has vexed everyone from priests and prophets to revolutionaries and social reformers; despite some nibbling around the edges, all they’ve managed is some moral finger-pointing, or else a defeated shrug – the poor will always be with us, as the refrain goes.

Not so, says the JRF. In early September, the organisation launched a five-point plan to tackle poverty in the UK within the space of a generation (see below). In two linked publications – ‘UK Poverty: Causes, Costs & Solutions’ and ‘We Can Solve Poverty In The UK’ – the organisation has set out what it described as the most comprehensive strategy of its kind.

All told, the documents make the case that it is well within our capabilities to consign poverty to the history books by 2030. Well, more or less. This is the 21st century, after all; an era born of a couple of centuries’ worth of profound social, cultural, technological and economic advancement (give or take the odd hiccough or catastrophe along the way), and this has bequeathed to us the material means for a progressive approach to human affairs. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to make the effort.
Julia Unwin, then chief executive of the JRF
“It’s shameful that in the 21st century, 13 million people in our wealthy country are living in poverty,” said Julia Unwin, the JRF’s chief executive, at the time the strategy was launched. “A new ‘long-term deal’ to solve poverty is urgently needed so the first generation of ‘Brexit children’ starting school this [year] grow up in a country where no matter where they live, everyone has a chance of a decent and secure life. Previous approaches have been too piecemeal, failing to deal with issues such as the high cost of living.

“Poverty divides communities and generations; it harms people’s potential and strains families; it drains the public purse and holds back our economy. The Prime Minister has made a promise to make Britain work for everyone and reform capitalism... I urge her to deliver on this promise. If we don’t take action now, poverty is set to increase for children and working-age adults. Poverty is the biggest social evil of our time – we must act now.”

Shameful it may be, but JRF is resting its case not on moral invective, but on evidence and reasoned argument. Moreover, it’s offering up some cash incentives – in terms of the cost burden that poverty places on society. All told, poverty costs the UK £78bn a year. That’s £1,200 for every person and equivalent to 4% of the national GDP, so that might appear a strong fiscal argument for resolving it once and for all. What’s more, the JRF estimates that a further £9bn is lost in tax revenue and additional benefits spending due to poverty’s knock-on effects later in life.

Poverty, clearly, doesn’t come cheap. While most of the organisation’s strategy to address this is beyond the remit of these pages, housing is an essential part of the strategy. It follows, then, that “housing providers have a pivotal role to play”.

“A safe and secure home provides the basis upon which people can build their lives and realise their potential – and is vital to the health and wellbeing of both adults and children,” says the report, ‘We Can Solve Poverty In the UK’.

“Yet the high cost of housing in the UK pushes an additional [3.4 million] people into poverty and is one of the main drivers of homelessness. While national governments must play their part and increase capital investment in the supply of genuinely affordable homes, housing providers – whether private landlords, housing associations or local authorities – can also take action.”

The aim is that by 2030 no one is ever destitute. Beyond that, less than one in 10 of the population are in poverty at any one time, but crucially – given the way that poverty if left untreated can blight whole lives, even generations – nobody should ever find themselves in poverty for more than two years. 

The reports “rightly identifies” housing as a key issue in alleviating UK poverty, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which welcomed their publication.

“The fact the words ‘housing’ or ‘homes’ appear more than 60 times in JRF’s 52-page strategy is telling, and gives a clear indication of just how central measures to help more people get a home they can afford are going to be if we are to tackle poverty,” said Gavin Smart, the CIH’s deputy chief executive. “The report itself states ‘the supply of genuinely affordable housing to bring down costs across tenures has become central to solving poverty in the UK’. We wholeheartedly agree with this. 

“Too many people in the UK do not have access to a home they can afford. Many people, particularly those under 35, are left with no alternative but to rent in an increasingly costly private sector. Some private tenants are spending up to half of their income on rent and the end of a private tenancy is by far the biggest cause of homelessness.

“It is worrying then that our analysis shows of the £45bn the Government earmarked for housing up to 2020/21 just £2bn was assigned to affordable housing.

“The latest construction figures are yet another cause for concern as they demonstrate that we are still not building the number of homes we need to meet the Government’s own target to build 200,000 homes a year, let alone the 250,000 a year needed to meet the backlog of housing need.

“This situation must change if we are to make a lasting impact on poverty by 2030. We are calling on the Government to introduce targeted measures in the Autumn Statement and beyond to help those ready to deliver the homes we need by giving them the funding, flexibility and support they need.”

The strategy also gained a positive reception from the National Housing Federation (NHF), but it said that three things were needed from a “partnership with an enabling government” if it was to play its part in bringing a solution to poverty close to reality. Namely:
  • Flexibility to deliver what is needed in local communities at prices they can afford
  • Certainty from government on its investment so that associations can build and deliver the social infrastructure that builds people’s capacity
  • Investment that is focused on outcomes and enables associations to lever in more from other partners to deliver shared outcomes on housing, work, health and education
“There is much to welcome in JRF’s recent ‘We can solve poverty’ report,” added Kathleen Kelly, the NHF’s assistant director of policy and research. “With an estimated £78bn a year of public spending linked to tackling poverty and its consequences it’s clear that poverty is not just a hard issue for families who are struggling to get by.

“Doing nothing about it also costs government money it could better spend lifting people out of poverty. In a year that sees the 50th anniversary of the iconic Cathy Come Home film, housing associations have always been united by a single purpose – that everyone has the opportunity to live in a home that they can afford.”

Councils also have a lot riding on the issue of poverty and its solutions. Councillor Nick Forbes, senior vice chair of the Local Government Association, said of the strategy: “There are parts of the UK where there is more to be done to raise people out of poverty. Councils are best placed to lead the way but need the financial freedom and powers to coordinate services and help everyone fulfil their potential.

“All local areas need to be able to integrate support to tackle drug and alcohol abuse, youth offending and prevent homelessness and given powers over national employment and skills schemes to smash through the significant barriers that prevent people finding and keeping a job. Councils can also play a lead role in building desperately-needed affordable homes – to buy and rent – which are crucial for enabling people to gain the skills to find and progress in employment.”

Evidently we stand on the verge of ending an age-old scourge; housing has a key role to play. But there lies the sour note: without a concerted effort to solve the housing crisis, the JRF’s strategy to tackle poverty will likely remain but a pipedream. 

On that note, it seems apt to finish with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “[P]overty is not natural,” he said. “It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

# # #

Putting poverty’s house in order

Housing is a critical part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s five-point plan to tackle poverty. This entails:

Increase the supply of affordable housing:

  • Each UK nation to implement a development framework that meets objectively assessed need for affordable housing, with rents linked to earnings
  • Make better use of planning powers by improving the effectiveness of planning obligations, and increasing local powers over land assembly
  • Ensure right-to-buy does not increase poverty through local discretion and ensuring homes sold are replaced like-for-like
More help with unaffordable housing costs:

  • Ensure assistance keeps pace with rising rent costs by up-rating Local Housing Allowance in line with local market rents
  • Devolve decisions about rent smoothing and tenure length in the private rented sector to local areas
  • Provide a more effective safety net for homeowners through a new partnership between government, lenders and borrowers
Push up standards, particularly in the private rented sector:

  • Return decisions on selective licensing in England to local areas
  • Develop integrated private rental sector services to assist tenants and landlords
  • Enable access to immediate tax relief on improvements towards Decent Homes standards in the private rented sector
A bigger role for social landlords:

    • Tackling poverty should be an explicit aim in social landlords’ business plans and strategies
    • Make home-ownership schemes more accessible through lower starting shares and options to sell back shares in the property
      # # # 

      The five point plan to end poverty

      1 Boost incomes and reduce costs

      • End the so-called poverty premium, where people in poverty pay more for everyday goods and services
      • Invest an extra £1bn a year to build “genuinely affordable” homes to rent and buy in England each year
      2 Deliver an effective benefit system

      • Reboot Universal Credit to make work pay and provide a strong safety net
      • Reform JobCentres to support people into secure and better-paid work – not just any job
      3 Improve education standards and raise skills

      • Improve educational attainment among children growing up in poverty
      • Double investment in basic skills training so five million more adults have basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills by 2030
      4 Strengthen families and communities

      • Radically overhaul the childcare system to give children the best start in life and make work pay for parents
      • Support strong families and relationships by establishing a family hub in every area
      5 Promote long-term economic growth benefitting everyone

      • Employers support and train their lowest paid staff to get on at work into better paid and secure jobs
      • Give mayors and town halls the incentives, powers and budget to help create more and better jobs and connect people in poverty to economic opportunities

      (Source: UK Poverty: Causes, Costs & Solutions, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, September 2016)

      This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellencewebsite, 21 December 2016

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