Looking on the bright side

Originally published on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

There was a depressingly common theme at a conference in London on the future of housing organised by Shelter this week.

Speaker after speaker felt the need to apologise for what would be a litany of gloom and doom and attempted to find something, anything, to lighten the mood.

Toby Lloyd of Shelter started with the good news on the Housing and Planning Bill. There is some, believe it or not, in the small steps towards tackling bad private landlords. But even then there’s a worry that measures to help genuine landlords tackle abandonment could turn into a fast track for evictions for more unscrupulous ones.

Then it was time for the real gloom. From Starter Homes to Pay to Stay and fixed-term tenancies to forced council house sales, the bill looks set to accelerate the slow death of social housing. As Toby put it, up to now all forms of affordable housing provision have had two things in common: they remained affordable in perpetuity; and the subsidy was recycled into more housing. Housing Bill-style ‘affordable’ (Starter Homes and whatever Greg Clark says) does neither. What hope there is now rests on what improvements (if any) can be won in the House of Lords.

Next up was Howard Sinclair from St Mungo’s, who said the bill does nothing for its homeless clients. For him, the worst news was on housing benefit, with the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap coming on top of the 1% rent reduction,

The cap in particular could decimate supported housing. “I don’t think anyone in government intended this but that is the effect,” he said. And if  you’re reading this trying to figure out what the impact of the LHA cap will be on your organisation, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Howard said that in the past week he’d had meetings with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. “They all say different things.” The savings set out in the Spending Review certainly imply something less severe but if there are widespread closures of hostels, refuges, sheltered housing and the rest it won’t be much consolation to discover that it was all a terrible mistake.

I was speaking in a session on social housing alongside Henry Gregg of the National Housing Federation, my fellow blogger Colin Wiles, and Kate Webb of Shelter – and there wasn’t much light relief on offer in this one either.

Henry warned housing associations and local authorities that they should be planning for at least 10 years of Conservative rule and not to expect the Labour cavalry to appear from over the horizon. His good news was the money for housing in the Spending Review, and in particular the prospect of housing associations working creatively with the funding for shared ownership.

Colin had little immediate cheer to offer apart from the hope that the persuasive case put forward by SHOUT for greater investment in social rented homes will one day break through. One-nation Conservatives recognise that social housing more than pays for itself over the long-term, and can save billions in housing benefit costs. Are there enough of them left, though?

I started my contribution (which I’ll blog about in more detail later) by making the point that we are only talking about England. Other UK nations working under the same regime of austerity from Westminster are taking a very different approach: Wales still has social housing grant and could be about to abolish the Right to Buy; Scotland has already abolished it, it’s just increased the grant rate, and the Scottish National Party has pledged 50,000 affordable homes including 35,000 for social rent if it wins the Scottish Parliament election.

My overall point about England was that as fast as the government is marketising social housing, it is socialising market housing as billions of pounds worth of direct and indirect subsidy are being poured into homeownership. The net effect is a huge shift in subsidy up the income scale and away from the poorest households. But does it also create an opportunity to mobilise greater electoral support for a broader range of ‘social’ housing?

Maybe, maybe not, but it did chime with one of Kate’s themes: public perceptions. When people are asked what words they associate with social housing, the depressing word at the top of the list is ‘benefits’. Perceptions improve when they’re asked about its role in tackling poverty and affordability problems.

And when they’re asked whether “social housing should be available to people who cannot afford the cost of renting privately, as well as the most vulnerable”, 82% agree. That could be taken as a threat and it’s maybe a mood that the Conservatives hope to exploit with their arguments about “fairness”. But could it also be an opportunity? A chance perhaps to build greater support for meeting a much wider range of housing need for millions of people that the focus on ownership will leave behind?

That’s the best I can do in terms of optimism for now. After lunch, the focus had shifted to housing benefit and the dire impact not just of the LHA cap but the reduction in the overall benefit cap. It was time to catch the train home…

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