This briefing paper explains key policy developments in relation to setting social housing rent levels in England since 2002. It covers recent policy developments including the requirement on social landlords to reduce rents by 1% in each year for four years from April 2016 and the rent setting policy which will apply from 2020.Jump to full report >>
In 2002 the Labour Government introduced a rent convergence policy under which, over a 10-year period, rents in social housing (local authority and housing association owned stock) were to be brought into alignment.
A rent formula was established with actual rents moving towards a national formula rent which took account of values of properties and local earnings relative to national earnings. A ‘bedroom weighting’ factor was also applied to try and ensure the resulting rents better reflected the perceived value of the properties being occupied. These formula rents were increased each year by the Retail Prices Index (RPI) + 0.5%.
The Coalition Government continued this rent setting process with (initially) a revised target convergence date for local authorities of 2015-16, subject to a maximum annual rent rise for an individual tenant of RPI + 0.5% + £2 per week.
As part of the 2013 Spending Round the Coalition Government announced that “from 2015-16 social rents will rise by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) plus 1 per cent each year for 10 years.” Following this announcement, DCLG sent a letter to housing bodies on 2 July 2013 in which plans to cut short the policy of converging council and housing association rents were revealed. Social landlords whose average rents had not yet reached target levels were concerned about the implications of this for their ability to repay debt and invest in new and existing social housing stock, but the certainty delivered by a 10-year rent settlement was welcomed.
The Rents for social housing from 2015 to 2016: consultation was published in October 2013 with a summary of responses published in May 2014. At the same time, the Government published its policy on rents for local authority owned social housing from April 2015 onwards - Guidance on rents for social housing. The guidance confirmed the intention to proceed with its policy of ending rent convergence in April 2015, and that CPI plus 1% would form the basis of rent increases for the next ten years.
The certainty of the 10-year settlement was short-lived. On 8 July 2015 (Summer Budget 2015) the Chancellor announced that rents in social housing would be reduced by 1% a year for four years resulting in a 12% reduction in average rents by 2020-21. The measure was forecast to save £1.4 billion by 2020-21, primarily in reduced Housing Benefit expenditure. Around 1.2m tenants not in receipt of Housing Benefit in the social rented sector were expected to benefit by £700 per year (2015 prices).
This policy change was unexpected and was greeted with some dismay by social landlords who had to model the impact on their business plans. Providers of supported housing, where rent levels tend to be higher, expressed particular concerns about the viability of these schemes. The Government responded at the end of January 2016 with an announcement of a year-long exception for all supported housing from the 1% rent reduction. On 15 September 2016, the Secretary of State announced that the deferral of the 1% rent reductions would end. Rent reductions are being applied to supported housing schemes, with some exceptions, so that rents for these properties decrease by 1% a year for 3 years up to and including 2019-20.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicted an overall reduction in housing investment as a result of the rent reduction policy. The measure is being implemented through provisions contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 and associated regulations.
The National Housing Federation is lobbying for flexibility for associations to set their own rents. The Housing White Paper, Fixing our broken housing market (February 2017), included a commitment to develop a rent policy for social landlords beyond 2020.
On 4 October 2017, DCLG announced that “increases to social housing rents will be limited to CPI plus 1% for 5 years from 2020.” This return to inflation-linked rent setting has been welcomed within the sector.
Consultation on a new rent direction took place between September and November 2018. The response to the consultation was published on 26 February 2019 – the Government confirmed the October 2017 announcement.
Housing policy is a devolved matter; different rent setting policies apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Changes to Housing Benefit are not devolved, aside from certain limited circumstances in Scotland. This means that changes to Housing Benefit entitlement have an impact on the rental income of social landlords in the devolved nations.