Jack Airey is Head of Housing at Policy Exchange.
For a long time, it was common for certain public sector workers to be provided a home as part of their job. Housing support used to be included in salary packages of Metropolitan Police officers, for example, either as free or subsidised accommodation or a paid housing allowance. Firefighters, teachers and nurses have also been eligible for subsidised housing schemes.
Support with finding a home allowed people whose job necessitated them to be close to the community they serve to do just that. The outgoing Labour Member of Parliament for Poplar and Limehouse, Jim Fitzpatrick, has spoken of how “When working as a firefighter in the 1970s, I was provided a home… [It] allowed me to get on with serving the public rather than worrying about next month’s rent.”
Although many of these homes have been sold off over recent decades, the extreme costs of buying or renting a home in some parts of the country in relation to public sector wages means that it is time to look again at how vital local workers can be supported with housing.
Many of the most valued and important front-line public sector workers are simply struggling to live in or near the community they serve. Instead, vital local public servants like police officers, teachers, nurses and firefighters have to commute from further and further away. This is a danger to local public services, making it more difficult to recruit and retain staff at the same time as impacting service delivery.
The NHS is a case in point. Recruitment and retention challenges are causing a high rate of vacancies for a range of roles which means that NHS trusts are using more short-term agency staff – at significant taxpayer expense. Staff health and well-being is also a major concern. Nurses, for instance, report that long shift work is a burden on their health and causing tiredness that puts their lives at risk if driving home after work.
The cost of housing compounds these issues in places where it is most unaffordable. Healthcare workers are competing for the same homes as private sector workers who are often better paid. It should come as no surprise, then, that four in ten nurses plan to leave London because of high housing costs.
The Metropolitan Police Service is similarly challenged by the cost of housing. Up until recently, the Met had a policy of recruiting new constables that had lived in London for a minimum of three years within the last six. This was because the police needs a workforce that understands and reflects the communities it serves. Past recruits who did not come from London were much more likely to transfer to another force outside the capital after a few years, lured by cheaper housing and family links. The Met’s residency criteria have now been relaxed, largely because they could not attract enough Londoners to apply. Again, the cost of housing is a deterrent to people choosing to work in a vital public service.
There are some public sector workers, of course, that require no housing support at all, either because they earn enough money or because they live in a place where the cost of housing is affordable relative to public sector wages. However, for the many vital local public sector workers who are struggling to pay next month’s rent or save enough to buy a home anytime soon, a helping hand would go a long way. The next government should commit to helping them as part of their housing agenda.
A report published today by Policy Exchange, the think tank I work for, outlines some of the steps the Government can take to support nurses, police officers and other vital public sector workers like firefighters and teachers in the housing market. We argue for the Key Worker Housing policy (first introduced by the Blair Government but later dropped during the Coalition era) to be revitalised.
This initiative allowed certain public sector workers – those who met ‘Key Worker’ eligibility criteria – to access affordable homes. It included demand-side measures, like equity loans, and supply-side measures, like funding for new Key Worker homes built for intermediate rental and for discounted ownership.
The Blair Government’s Key Worker Housing scheme had its flaws. Eligibility criteria for Key Worker Housing, for example, sprawled wider than necessary. A more narrow focus is needed in the criteria on workers from the local area who genuinely are a necessary part of the community infrastructure. The guiding principles of the Key Worker Housing programme, however, offer the next government a platform to support front-line public sector workers whose job requires them to live close to their workplace the chance to do so. A mix of new measures is then required involving local authorities and housing associations.
Reforms are firstly needed to increase the stock of Key Worker homes. Future capital funding programmes for Affordable Housing should be directed more towards the building of Key Worker homes. Public sector landowners like the NHS should also be encouraged to partner with housing associations that can build and manage affordable homes reserved for local Key Workers on their surplus land and property.
Local authorities and housing associations in areas where high housing costs are causing the most acute staffing challenges for front-line public services should, secondly, give greater priority to local Key Workers when allocating social housing. This will provide Key Workers a more immediate opportunity to access an affordable home.
Lastly, the Government should announce a Met Police Key Worker Housing Deal. This would be an important part of the Met’s recruitment drive, especially if the proposed 5,000 new officers are to come from London. To this end, London’s Affordable Homes Funding Programme should be topped up by £70 million to help finance the building of 2,500 affordable Key Worker homes specifically reserved for Met officers. Ministers should also consider extending the Forces Help to Buy scheme – this is a more generous version of the standard Help to Buy scheme – to help Met officers buy a home in London.
Both candidates hoping to lead the country after December’s election talk a lot about boosting public services and supporting vital public sector workers. Revitalising Key Worker Housing would show that they mean it.