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Sold-off public land is creating minuscule amounts of affordable housing

An opportunity to build genuinely affordable homes is slipping through our fingers.


After years of pressure from NEF, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the National Housing Federation and others, the government has finally told us what is happening to the public land they are selling from beneath our feet. It’s not good news.

For the last two years the government has resisted capturing and publishing data on how much affordable housing is being built on sold-off public land. Instead, NEF has done their homework for them — showing the public just how little public land is being used to solve the housing crisis.

Last year, based on planning documents from a sample of public land sales, NEF estimated that only 6% of homes built on land sold under the government’s disposal scheme were for social rent. But our analysis of new government data – the first to be released publicly by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on the housing outcomes of its public land sale – suggests the proportion of homes for social rent is in fact less than half what we previously found.

While releasing the data is an important first step, what it reveals shows a scandalously low level of affordable housing planned on sold public land. There are more than one million households on the waiting list for social housing, and Shelter has identified a need for 3.1 million socially rented homes – the most affordable category of housing – to be built over the next 20 years.

Our analysis of these new figures has found that:

  • While the government has sold enough public land for developers to build 131,000 homes, only 2.6% of those homes will be for social rent.
  • 15% of homes built on public land will be classified as affordable housing’. However, the government does not have data on what kind of affordable housing the majority of this is. Since the government changed the definition of affordable’ to include homes rented at 80% market rates, social rent is widely understood to be the only housing genuinely affordable to people on low incomes. Such affordable housing also includes shared ownership’ homes, which in London are accessible to those earning up to £80,000 per year.
  • As a percentage of total affordable housing built on sold-off public land, social rented housing will still only make up 17% of all affordable homes built.

For almost a decade, the government has been selling off public land; hospitals, prisons, ministry of defence firing ranges. The current five-year programme has the dual aim of releasing enough land for 160,000 homes by 2020, and raising £5 billion in capital receipts.

Ostensibly, the aim of the programme was to help solve the housing crisis. But the government has shown scant interest in the types of homes being built. Solving the housing crisis requires building millions of new homes, but the crux of the crisis is in the affordability of the homes. What sort of housing and for whom is as important a question as how many homes are built. In most places, providing truly affordable housing means that building social housing should be top priority.

It took considerable pressure from NEF, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee to persuade the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to collect and publish data on the public land sale. Like us, they have had to rely on planning documents to arrive at a breakdown of the types of homes planned or built on sold-off public land. This is welcome.

But what it reveals is appalling. The availability and price of land is at the heart of the housing affordability crisis — the more we sell off public land to build luxury apartments, the worse the housing crisis gets. With the land it owns, government could have helped fix this by delivering a much higher proportion of genuinely affordable housing. But it has not and what the release of data therefore shows is a key opportunity slipping through our fingers.

This has acute consequences felt in villages, towns and cities across the country. For instance, in Southend, Essex, there are 1500 families on the waiting list for social housing, and high housing costs are causing a staff shortage in the area’s NHS facilities.

But people are fighting back. A coalition of Southend NHS workers and residents’ groups called Fossetts for the People, has formed to fight to secure affordable social housing on a former NHS site, which was sold to Homes England for £7.8m. The group are demanding that the sold-off land should be used entirely for new social rented homes, delivering 400 new homes for residents and key workers.

In November, NEF published a major policy paper outlining how public land could be used to begin to solve the housing crisis at a national level. We argued that, given the central role land plays in the housing system, public land should be ring-fenced for the provision of social housing where appropriate. Our research finds that central government public land could offer enough space for 100,000 social homes in this parliament.

The private sector has failed to build the kinds of homes people need, at a price they can afford. With public land, the government has a real opportunity to shape the housing system to meet demand. But so far, the government has made limited effort to influence what happens on public land. At a regional level, the Greater London Authority has a policy that public land in London should deliver 50% affordable housing, but without central government support, this is often not achieved, as much public land is not under their control.

People are demanding more. The Fossetts for the People campaign continues its fight. The Royal College of Nursing has also called on the government to use surplus NHS land to deliver key worker housing, a policy being piloted in London. Public land should be used for public benefit, not sold to build unaffordable private homes, and the struggle is far from over.

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