What – and who – is social housing for?

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

I’ve lost count of the number of inquiries taking place into the future of social housing.

Sajid Javid wanted his forthcoming green paper to ‘kick off a nationwide conversation’ only to see Alok Sharma reshuffled in the middle of hearing what tenants had to say.

But the conversation is at least taking place. Whether it’s Labour, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter or similar initiatives in the devolved nations, everyone is set to have their say.

The content will range far and wide from governance to safety, quality to quantity and accountability to tenants’ rights but there are also basic questions to be answered about what and who social housing is for.

Some vital context for this comes in the latest edition of the UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

The headline findings from the review put paid to some of the myths. Far from funding new social homes, more than 95 per cent of housing subsidies now go into demand rather than supply and we now devote £4 in grants, loans and guarantees to the private market for every £1 that is available for affordable housing.

And far from social housing being the ‘subsidised’ tenure portrayed by certain right-wing think tanks, it actually receives less net subsidy than home ownership.

More on all that is explained elsewhere on insidehousing.co.uk today but the point, I think, is that the boundary between state and market does not always run where we think it does.

As usual, the 2018 edition of the UK Housing Review combines a comprehensive set of housing statistics with commentary on key housing issues.

That includes a chapter on the purpose of social housing by John Perry and Mark Stephens.

Much of it is a survey of how that purpose has changed over time and how it varies between different countries between three basic positions: an ‘ambulance service’ offering a help only to those in the most acute need for a limited time; a ‘safety net’ offering longer-tem assistance to those in need; and a ‘wider affordability’ role in which it is available to a range of different income groups and competes with private housing on quality and value for money.

Underlying all of that, they say, is a key question: “should tenancies be a ‘way station’ or a ‘destination’ for low-income households?”

Britain’s ‘safety net’ model has been caught between those two opposing views, they say, as shown by its history.

Until recently, the way station seemed to be winning: that was exactly the point of all those reports from right-wing think tanks and reforms such as fixed-term tenancies and pay to stay after 2010.

Arguably, the pendulum has swung back a little since 2016, with pay to stay going nowhere and starter homes, the extension of the right to buy and forced sales of council houses apparently on the backburner, and the state now holding a 20 per cent stake in 145,000 owner-occupied homes via Help to Buy and supporting up to 40 per cent of the sales of private sector housebuilders.

But in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire no government, not even a Conservative one, can be seen to pursue a policy of turning social housing into an ambulance service reserved only for the very poorest.

As testimony to that, even right-wing think tanks have for the moment stopped arguing for council estates to be demolished and sold off.

A report by the controversial Legatum Institute last week even argued that the estate around Grenfell Tower should be turned into a community land trust.

Their model, remarkably, was Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, which was itself born out of resistance to the Dame Shirley Porter and an earlier generation of Tory housing policy.

So political space exists for supporters of social housing to make fresh arguments for its role and importance – though this will not last forever.

One key question is how we define ‘social housing’. The temptation, after years of the line being blurred between ‘affordable’ and ‘social’, ministers telling half-truths and landlords using the chance to convert homes to higher rents, is to go for a narrow definition that only includes homes for social rent.

Far better, I think, to argue for a broader definition of social housing as being for a range of different income groups but with a clear understanding of what proportion of it should be for genuinely affordable rent.

At a minimum we need a stronger ‘safety net’ but maybe we should also be aspiring to the ‘wider affordability’ role that John Perry and Mark Stephens set out.

I’ll leave them with the last word:

‘Much of the case for social housing lies in providers’ capacities to combine efficiency with the ability to provide better products and services than the market, at lower prices, and to contribute more effectively to meeting long-term social and political objectives.

‘This is only partly a question of resources, it is also a question of political and societal attitudes towards the tenure and its tenants, of fostering a unique resources which continues to house almost a fifth of the population while largely paying for itself, rather than seeing it as a drag on public resources and a political liability, ripe for short-term policy changes.

‘Whether social housing is to be a stronger, and more ample ‘safety net’ or in future to have a ‘wider affordability’ role, neither will be achieved without renewed commitment. It should be a tribute to the Grenfell Tower victims and survivors if such an attitudinal change were now to begin.’

Amen to that.

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