Levelling up, the housing crisis and a basic right to shelter

Young mother and father with a little girl and baby sitting on a leather sofa
Centre for Homelessness Impact / Liam McBurney/PA

Inflation and interest rate rises mean more and more households are worried about the security of their own home. Lucy Webb of Inner Circle Consulting says the government’s levelling up agenda must address the affordable housing crisis.

For those looking for a clear definition of ‘levelling up’, the convergence of the cost-of-living crisis and the housing crisis gives us just that: the basic human right of shelter.

This is no longer just an issue for the most marginalised in our communities. Years of underinvestment in affordable homes and housing retrofit, combined with dire economic headwinds, means that homes have become precarious for many people.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s December 2022 report found that over 3 million households (28%) had not been able to afford to keep their home warm since June. Citizens Advice’s data dashboard shows that in 2022 they helped more people with homelessness than in the previous five years. Many people must now choose between eating or heating and many more are in danger of losing their homes completely.

Lucy Webb, Inner Circle Consulting

 Securing a home is the first step to establishing an equal chance to flourish

Here’s how to do it: Government must support housing ministers to tackle the issue across both the levelling up and housing briefs. That starts by expanding investment in social and truly affordable housing. They must also ensure more local authorities can access sufficient Homes England and Greater London Authority grants to counter the viability gap that’s stoked by inflation and supply challenges.

The government must also fund an accelerated programme of retrofit. We could have one million homes fixed by next winter. Research shows that those in the private rented market are the most exposed to cold, leaky homes, expensive energy bills and a lack of landlord support.

We must develop the skills, jobs and opportunities to build the houses we need

The Net Zero Hub in Portsmouth is building local skills and knowledge to install new housing technology and meet net zero commitments. The Optimised Retrofit programme in Wales brings together a consortium of  partners to identify the key skills needed and where the most significant gaps will be.

We must support and equip local authorities to directly deliver local employment skills training programmes, retrofit existing homes and build the right homes in the right places. Relying on developers doesn’t work.

At Inner Circle Consulting, we supported LB Camden to tie the retrofit of 33,000 council properties into an employment and skills programme for local residents over 30 years.

Mother holding daughter who is under 5 years old in a park in London
Aaron Chown/PA Wire from Centre for Homelessness Impact.

Working with communities to identify vulnerable people is key

All of this is only effective if we work with community groups to identify those most vulnerable to the impact of the current crises. We must ensure they quickly receive short-term support and are involved in devising preventative solutions that go to the root of the issue.

Data shows us that vulnerabilities are exacerbated by sex and race.

According to the Women’s Budget Group, 67% of adults in homeless households are women and 60% of households claiming housing benefit are women. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, two in ten BAME households across the UK live in unaffordable housing – double the national average for white households.

There are innovators whose work we can follow here. LB Barking and Dagenham’s work with Xantura helped target council intervention at those most vulnerable to hardship. This partnership paid huge dividends during the Covid-19 pandemic when the council had to work at speed to identify, target and support those most at risk.

At Inner Circle, we are applying a similar, data-led approach within our Crisis to Prevention mission. We are supporting councils from Southwark to Salford to target resource at the most vulnerable people from hitting crisis point.

Levelling up requires a whole-system approach

Yes, the government needs to get serious about funding and support to deliver more affordable homes and better building stock.

We also need to work together as an industry to ensure that we target the resources we have in the most effective way. We must use data to understand our residents and work with community groups so residents’ voices are heard.

Retrofit schemes must include education, skills and training to create the workforce we need to deliver good homes and also good jobs.

We need to look across our real or administrative boundaries and find ways to provide the land, assets, education and financial resilience needed to give everyone a warm, safe and affordable home.

The government’s own definition says: “Levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish.” If we start with the basics of providing warm and safe shelter and tackle the specific vulnerabilities of sex and race, we can create better futures for everyone.

Lucy Webb is a director at Inner Circle Consulting and has held senior regeneration roles at Croydon Council and Peabody. This article was first published in the Future of London report, Affordable Housing: Overcoming crisis through collaboration.