12 March 2020: Essential housing work must continue
While coronavirus rightly took centre-stage in the Budget statement this week, it was reassuring to see the chancellor also focused on a significant increase in infrastructure investment to £600bn over five years.
At Stonewater, we see affordable housing as a vital part of national infrastructure and are delighted Rishi Sunak agrees. The announcement of the £12.2bn new five-year Affordable Homes Programme from 2021, alongside further spending to bring forward brownfield sites marks a genuine step-up in government spending.
In its recent manifesto, the Conservative party pledged to ‘level-up and spread opportunity across the UK’ and the measures announced in the Budget on infrastructure spending begin this process.
From our perspective at Stonewater, we are already pushing ourselves to build 1,500 affordable homes every year by 2022/3 in locations across England. This includes our work with Guinness as the largest Homes England strategic partnership to date, using £224m in grant to deliver 4,500 homes.
We stand ready to work with the government do even more to tackle the housing crisis and level-up the housing market. The planning measures announced by the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, and upcoming Planning White Paper and Social Housing White Paper will also be important in this regard.
A key point in the upcoming £600bn infrastructure investment and AHP will be ensuring a range of affordable housing tenures are funded to meet our customers’ needs – this includes affordable rented housing. We will use this government investment as a springboard to do even more for communities in the North and Midlands, as well as elsewhere in the country.
Preparing for coronavirus
Yet, while we are continuing to explore how Stonewater can best support communities across the country with much-needed new affordable housing, our existing customers remain at the forefront of our minds.
Coronavirus is clearly a major concern for everyone. In common with other housing providers, Stonewater has prepared for the impact of coronavirus. The wellbeing and safety of all our customers, colleagues and contractors is our first priority. We are monitoring the situation with coronavirus extremely closely and following all advice issued by the authorities.
Our teams are fully aware of the specific steps they need to take to keep themselves and customers safe, minimising the chances of spreading coronavirus.
However, our essential work as housing providers must continue. Boilers still need to be serviced, homes still need to be built, and support services still need to be provided. We have stress-tested our business plan and, thanks to our prudent approach on liquidity, our foundations are good and will allow us to continue delivering for existing and new customers. Unless informed otherwise by Public Health England or the NHS, our people will continue to come to work and carry out their normal day-to-day duties.
Support for customers
In this light, it is very encouraging that the chancellor also outlined continued increases to the Living Wage (to £10.50 an hour by April 2024) as well as a higher National Insurance threshold. Coupled with easier access to welfare support for those affected by coronavirus, these measures will really help many of our customers.
The announcement of extra investment to prevent rough sleeping is another positive move. It takes the total to £650m, following other recent announcements and will help 6,000 people a year. Stonewater is a leading provider of supported housing services and so we wholeheartedly welcome this investment.
The £1bn Building Safety Fund to ensure the removal of combustible cladding from high-rise blocks over 18m shows the government is responding to the issues affecting many residents and managers of these properties. As a housing association operating outside London and other major cities, Stonewater is in the fortunate position of having very few high-rise homes. However, the investment is clearly an encouraging step for the sector as a whole.
What was missing?
Something that was not a main Budget theme, but is absolutely a priority for us is the response to the global climate emergency. We are ensuring our new and existing homes are net zero-carbon in good time for the 2050 deadline set by the government. This will be a significant undertaking, but we recognise it is the right thing to do.
In summary, Mr Sunak did deliver a ‘Coronavirus Budget’, but that was not the only message. It is clear that the government is prepared to increase investment in the affordable housing sector. Despite the other pressures we face, there is an opportunity to do more to tackle the housing crisis and we intend to take it.
Nicholas Harris – Chief Executive