Sajid Javid’s apparent conversion to social housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 20.

So seven years after all funding ended, three years after the chancellor said it just produces Labour voters and little more than a year after the government legislated to sell a huge chunk of it, social housing is now so ‘treasured’ that it deserves its own green paper.

It’s hard to under-estimate the shift in rhetoric by communities secretary Sajid Javid in his speech to the National Housing Federation (NHF) conference this week but will it be matched by the reality?

He’s not the only one to change his tune. It’s only two years since the same conference saw housing associations rush to endorse the voluntary deal on the Right to Buy.

They did so even though it would be financed by the sale of the most valuable third of council housing and even though replacements for social rented homes sold off could be for shared ownership, part rent-part buy or even starter homes.

That was then. This is now with a weakened government and a context changed utterly by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Tuesday’s papers were full of the NHF’s powerful case for social rented housing with a report highlighting the slump in funding since 2009 and a demand that the government redirect more than £1 bn unspent on starter homes into ‘genuinely affordable homes’.

And immediately before the minister spoke NHF chief executive David Orr made an unequivocal case for social rented housing: ‘The Government must be bold and make a break with the past by making money available to build genuinely affordable homes.’

Sajid Javid responded with a speech that made all the right noises, though he failed to tell associations what they most wanted to hear on a new rent formula and the future funding of supported housing.

But after years of being told that social housing just creates ‘barracks for the poor’, that it should be sold off and marketised, who could have imagined a Tory secretary of state saying this:

‘We need to shift the whole conversation about social housing, reframe the whole debate. We need to challenge outdated, unfair attitudes.

‘We need to return to the time, not so very long ago, when social housing was valued. It was treasured. Something we could all be proud of whether we lived in it or not.’

The green paper will, rightly, raise some awkward questions for landlords about fire safety and listening to their residents.

And Javid said it would go further to look at ‘wider issues of place, community and the local economy’ and ask ‘how social landlords can help to create places where people want to live in’.

But even though he said it would be published as soon as possible the suspicion remains that a green paper is an ideal way for the government to look like it is doing something until the political pressure is off.

And it looks very much like policy created backwards. Normally governments publish a green paper with policy proposals, refine the details in a white paper and then publish a Bill that gets debated in Parliament.

This one forced through a Housing and Planning Act full of half-baked proposals, then published a white paper and is only now getting around to a green paper.

The ghosts of that Act are still lurking in the background. Forced sales and the voluntary Right to Buy are still there even though everyone hopes they have gone away.

The minister thinks it is ‘a great policy’ even though ‘there are issues that need looking at, I accept that’.

And the Sajid Javid who thinks that social housing should be ‘treasured and valued’ is the same one who voted for forced sales, the funding cut and the bedroom tax.

The obsession with home ownership seen under David Cameron and George Osborne has shifted to a better balance between tenures under Theresa May and George Osborne. The Autumn Statement on November 22 will provide an early test of just how ‘treasured’ social housing really is.

As for the green paper, it’s vital that the housing sector as a whole sticks together and does not let the government off the hook.

As Polly Neate, the new chief executive of Shelter, put it in another conference session on Tuesday: ‘If we can’t work together after Grenfell, we never will.’

She said she had been told many times in her first few weeks that housing issues are ‘complex’ but ‘we need simple clear messages about what we want from the green paper’.

On that, the signs were promising both in David Orr’s speech and in support for social rented housing from other associations.

It will be equally vital to ensure that the scope of the green paper is as wide as possible. As Terrie Alafat argues, it must also consider funding and welfare.

It remains to be seen whether the green paper will really empower tenants and demonstrate that social housing really is ‘treasured’ or whether Sajid Javid’s fine words will be quietly forgotten by next year.

But the conversation has to include the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and the LHA cap if it to give us something we can all be proud of.

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