The Clap for Our Carers phenomenon reflects heartfelt gratitude for what is currently being done, for all of us, by NHS staff, carers and others carrying out essential services. But clapping is glib. Many of us no doubt feel uneasy. After all many or most of those to whom we owe so much:
⁃ are in jobs in the public sector, or are employed by companies contracted to the public sector, and have seen particular and significant pressure on their incomes for many years;
⁃ are doing those jobs in the absence of adequate facilities and equipment, due to longstanding restrictions on public spending, lack of investment at necessary levels and/or a lack of organisational foresight;
⁃ are not UK nationals and have had to suffer an increasingly hostile environment, catalysed by Brexit;
⁃ due to the loss over time of traditional indentured accommodation and massive house price inflation, particularly in London, have found themselves unable to live in decent accommodation convenient to their work, despite often needing to work at unsocial times or being “on call”.
Plainly there will be a reckoning on many fronts when this immediate crisis is over but will one consequence be a fresh focus on the role of key worker affordable housing?
The NPPF affordable housing definition includes housing for “essential local workers” but, whilst many individual local authorities and registered providers may still prioritise some applications from local key workers, variously defined, there has been no central Government encouragement, let alone funding, for key worker accommodation for many years.
In fact the background to the demise of any focus on accommodation for key workers is well described in a November 2019 presciently topical Policy Exchange paper, Revitalising Key Worker Housing by Jack Airey (now of course a No 10 policy advisor) and Sir Robin Wales (previously leader, and then mayor, of Newham Council).
Back in 2000, the Blair Government launched the Starter Home Initiative, which aimed to provide low cost home ownership for key workers, primarily nurses, teachers and police officers.
The then housing minister Tony McNulty, responded to a question in the Commons as to what progress had been made on providing key workers with affordable housing in central London:
“The Government recognise the importance of affordable housing for key workers in London in maintaining balanced and successful communities.
£146 million of the £250 million Starter Homes Initiative has been allocated to London schemes and will help around 4,600 key workers to realise their aspirations of home ownership. We hope that the initiative will act as a catalyst, and encourage other innovative approaches to housing key workers.
The NHS in London is providing 2,000 units of affordable rental accommodation for health staff in the three years up to June 2003.”
However, as summarised in this 2004 Guardian article:
“Uptake was slow and the help available often failed to keep pace with rapidly rising property prices. As it was confined to just nurses, teachers and police officers, it was also criticised as too narrowly focused.
In March 2004, the government devoted more resources to the problem and replaced the SHI with a £690m programme called Key Worker Living (KWL). Under the new scheme, eligibility for assistance was broadened to include social workers, fire-fighters, and prison and probation service staff.
The type of housing assistance offered under KWL was also expanded to include ‘intermediate’ rented housing – priced at levels above those of traditional social housing, but still below market rates.”
As described by Shelter, four products were available to key workers under KWL
⁃ equity (“Homebuy”) loans of up to £50,000 to buy a home;
⁃ higher-value equity loans up to £100,000 for a small group of London school teachers with the potential to become leaders in their field;
⁃ shared-ownership of newly built properties; and
⁃ intermediate renting at subsidised levels
Until April 2008, KWL leases contained a clawback provision where the beneficiary ceased to be a key worker.
In the affordable housing reforms, and grant cut backs, following the global financial crisis and the 2010 general election, there was no longer any specific key worker housing “pathway” promoted or funded by Government. The focus has instead been on “affordability” judged by reference to rental/income levels and without reference to the applicant’s occupation. Responsibility for affordable housing in London transferred to the Mayor in April 2012 and since his election in 2016 Sadiq Khan has pursued a specific approach, driven by the obvious concern that the Government’s definition of “affordable rent”, based on discount to market value, does not necessarily enable local housing needs in London properly to be met. On London’s Dave Hill has written a good explainer, What are London ‘affordable’ homes and who can afford them? (17th December 2018), subtitled “An attempt to explain the almost unexplainable”.
The specific challenges faced in London have been covered well in papers such as these:
⁃Fair to middling: report of the Commission on Intermediate Housing (November 2015)
⁃Estimating the Value of Discounted Rental Accommodation for London’s ‘Squeezed’ Key Workers (Dolphin Square Foundation, October 2016)
Back in December 2019 the Mayor promised a consultation in intermediate housing during the course of 2020 “which will seek views on a range of issues, including how we can ensure that key workers benefit from intermediate housing in the capital”.
From a national perspective, we did see reference to key workers in the Government’s February 2020 consultation document on its proposed First Homes programme, “prioritised for first-time buyers, serving members and veterans of the Armed Forces, and key workers, such as nurses, police and teachers” (see my 29 February 2019) blog post (perhaps the Policy Exchange influence there, in the light of its December 2019 report?), but what is the Government’s stance more generally as to whether key workers should be given priority in relation to particular forms of affordable housing?
And indeed (the point at which the nice ideas start to stall), how do you even define “key workers”? The “essential workers” definition may be appropriate for the purposes of the current Covid-19 crisis but would not necessarily be appropriate in the longer term – it is in some instances potentially too narrow and in other respects too wide.
The difficulty is possibly rooted in an uncomfortable fundamental truth. In a functioning market-based economy, who isn’t a key worker? The problem is rather that there are many people, some skilled some unskilled, carrying out relatively poorly paid roles, without which society certainly couldn’t function, and who cannot secure adequate, suitable and convenient accommodation due to the disparity between what they earn and the cost of renting or owning property.
The “correct” longer term solution is plainly a twofold one of significantly raising those earning levels (which is not going to be easy as presumably we enter another economically challenging period) and of reducing, or at least stabilising, property costs (also not easy, given lack of supply). We will only ever paper over part of the problem of inadequate salary levels by requiring developers to subsidise the affordability gap.
But in an imperfect world of course we do need an “incorrect” shorter term solution, which surely must be to ensure that those in defined categories of occupation are now given proper priority when it comes to affordable housing tenures of all kinds, and that developers who are prepared to make a meaningful commitment in that respect (particularly if supported by employers of key workers) are not faced with an overly restrictive application of local affordable housing policies until such time as those policies catch up.
Our carers (widely defined) certainly deserve a lot more than a badge at the end of this.
Simon Ricketts, 18 April 2020
Personal views, et cetera
NB Thank you to my Town colleague Lida Nguyen for some background research.