How Sheffield’s council estates changed – and what the future holds

Tenants loved it, councils struggled with it, and 40 years on, Sheffield is still feeling the impact.

Thousands of new council homes will be built. Photo Scott Merrylees
Thousands of new council homes will be built. Photo Scott Merrylees

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, one of her first policies was Right to Buy, legislation which changed council housing for generations.

Introduced in 1980, it allowed tenants to buy their council home and many who were desperate to get off the rental roundabout on to the property ladder quickly snapped up their property.

Tenants saw it as long term security, a chance to own a home when they couldn’t afford to buy privately and a way to stay close to family and friends in a familiar neighbourhood.

But for local authorities, it had huge implications. Sheffield Council has sold well over 32,000 homes under Right to Buy – but has not had the money to build any new homes to replace them.

Janet Sharpe, director for housing and neighbourhood services at the council, says in a report: “The 32,000 council homes has included many of the best and most desirable homes, particularly houses and particularly in the most popular areas.”

The council saw a drop in income from rents but also found itself having to pay more for management and maintenance.

“Over the last 30 years the mix of council homes has significantly changed,” says Ms Sharpe.

“Formerly the ratio of houses to flats and maisonettes was much higher, it is now likely that in the near future flats will outnumber houses for the first time. This is at a time when the demand for affordable housing has increased significantly.

“Aside from the reduction in rental income as homes are sold, there is an impact on management and maintenance costs, which are much higher for flats than for houses.

“Each year it becomes harder to make the savings necessary to avoid this having an impact on our ability to invest in council housing stock, meet housing demand and manage the estates.”

The changing face of Sheffield’s estates

Over half of the homes on many estates have been sold and a “considerable proportion” are no longer owner-occupied but privately rented.

Ms Sharpe says: “Even though these are still seen as council estates, the council has no control over who lives in the homes it doesn’t own.

“This increases the demand for council housing services to address neighbourhood issues and reduces its ability to carry out effective neighbourhood management.”

Building new homes can only have a positive effect. Ms Sharpe says: “Our evidence tells us that affordability in Sheffield has worsened over the last five years.

“Providing more affordable homes through the council’s stock increase programme will help to meet this shortfall and it will provide a wider range of affordable homes.

“It will also help to provide more choice of homes available – around 3,000 homes per year are re-let – as currently 70 per cent of homes that become available for rent are taken up by households with an urgent housing priority so choice is very limited for new and existing customers on the council’s housing register even when taking into account other affordable housing association accommodation available in the city.

“An increased range of affordable homes supports communities to upsize and downsize locally as their personal circumstances change and helps households to live in homes where they can more easily access and sustain jobs, education and training and give or receive care and support.

“Increased provision of affordable homes will reduce disadvantage and help neighbourhoods and their communities to thrive.”

New homes on the horizon

More than 3,000 new council houses are set to be built in Sheffield over the next decade.

There’s now more flexibility to borrow money to build homes after the government lifted a cap. Sheffield was one of the few local authorities to work directly with the government over the last two years on this.

Ms Sharpe says: “Around 500 new homes have been delivered to date. However, by the time this programme is complete it is likely that the council will have lost around 3,000 homes so the pace of replacement homes is now critical to ensure that we can safely provide the homes that are needed and to ensure the condition of our estates remains good.”

The homes built will provide enough revenue to be self-financed over a 30 year period. Even with this programme the council will only be keeping pace with replacing homes that are lost on an annual basis through Right to Buy.

But it will enable the council to increase the numbers of certain types of homes that are in short supply.

Along with general council housing, officers will look at Extra Care Schemes, specialist accommodation for vulnerable people, temporary accommodation and shared ownership homes.

Officers say a shortfall in specialist older people’s housing is likely to contribute to Sheffield’s above-average rate of placements to residential care homes.

Schemes will ensure that rents are set at a level that could encourage people to move from larger homes into high quality extra care housing with on-site round the clock support which will help them to live independently, at a reasonable cost, for as long as possible.

Two schemes for people with learning disabilities are also currently being developed with NHS England.

Some homes will also be shared ownership. Ms Sharpe explains: “Council tenants who have the income to change their circumstances presently have limited options available to them.

“They can remain in a council rented property, move to the private rented sector on the same estate, often a former council property, or purchase their home.

“Shared ownership of a new property would provide an alternative enabling households to slowly staircase the amount of home they purchase if their financial circumstances improved.

“This could reduce the number of households trying to purchase their home through Right to Buy as an alternative home could be available elsewhere that better suits their needs.”