Rethinking social housing

Originally posted on June 26 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS an older part of the welfare state is at a crossroads.

The road already taken reaches back to the birth of council housing at the end of the 19th century and its rise and fall through the 20th century.

While other parts of the UK have sought to protect the role of social housing, until recently in England only one direction seemed possible.  This offered a motorway towards fixed-term tenancies, the housing association right to buy, forced sales of council houses, with social housing seen as a way station rather than a destination for the most vulnerable.

But the events of 2017 have reconfigured the road signs to leave other options for the way ahead. Grenfell means it is no longer possible for governments of any party to ignore social housing and social tenants, the rhetoric of the Conservative prime minister has changed, the Labour party has put forward a coherent plan for ‘genuinely affordable’ housing and any number of different projects is underway to rethink the role and purpose of social housing.

Today it’s the turn of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which marks its 2018 conference with publication of the final report from its Rethinking Social Housing project.

Public opinion was never as negative as the political situation implied but the impression of a shift in the climate is reinforced by the results of an Ipsos MORI opinion poll alongside the report. This shows that:

  • 80% of people in England agree that social housing is important because it helps people on lower incomes get housing which wouldn’t be affordable in the private rented sector
  • 78% think social housing should be available to people who cannot afford the cost of renting privately, as well as to the most vulnerable
  • 68% think that social housing plays in important role in tackling poverty in Britain
  • 65% of people agree that the negative view of the people that live in social housing is unfair.
  • More than 60% of people support more social housing being built in their area.

Following a series of workshops involving more than 3,000 people, including tenants and housing professionals, the CIH says it is now time to reclaim housing’s role as a central pillar of society alongside health and education.

The report makes a series of recommendations to protect and expand social housing, make it more affordable and give tenants more say and rights of redress. The one that will grab most attention is suspending the right to buy, instead finding other ways to help tenants into home ownership. The CIH also wants the government to shift the balance of investment towards affordable housing (currently 79% of the government’s £53 billion housing budget goes to private housing).

But there is also a challenge to social housing organisations on future investment plans, on rents and perhaps above all to address ‘a sense that there has been a breakdown of trust between landlords and tenants’.

As one tenant from the South East put it:

 ‘Residents are constantly ignored, managed, sidelined etc. by my local government provider, but they are happy to manage our images in annual reports. We need proper, healthy dialogue and accountability. Organisations seem to have forgotten why they are there. We should be at the heart of provision…It also breaks my heart that hardly anyone seems to stand up for the values of social housing.’

Those values came through in the workshops as affordability and meeting need (mentioned by 80% of participants), security (60%), quality (almost half) and building communities and social purpose (around a third).

Those answers could suggest a range of different answers to the question of what – and who – social housing is for?

As the UK Housing Review pointed out earlier this year, there have been three broad answers to this over the last 50 years: an ambulance service with time-limited help for people in need; a safety net with longer term assistance for people in need; and a wider affordability role for a wider range of income groups.

Britain has mostly opted for the safety net and occasionally flirted with the wider affordability role but England had seemed to be moving steadily towards more of an ambulance service.

So the CIH says the sector needs to adopt a common definition and understanding of the role and purpose of social housing and act as ambassadors to embed this understanding of the role it plays in wider society.

Social housing is here defined as ‘decent, secure housing which is affordable to people on low incomes, wherever they may live in the country, provided by not-for-profit organisations.’

This shifts its purpose towards that ‘wider affordabilty’ role, one that new figures published by the Resolution Foundation over the weekend suggest is more desperately needed than ever.

It is also a definition that could include a range of different housing options including social rent, sub-market rent, shared ownership and even subsidised ownership.

Some people will argue for social rent before everything else and it is hard to argue against that as a priority after years of development for, and conversions to, ‘affordable’ rent.

However, it is surely time to move beyond a purely defensive stance. Social rent and housing homeless people must be priorities but if social housing is to come close to claiming a place alongside health and education it has to be more ambitious and aspire to a wider role too.

Equally, that ambition must not become a set of platitudes that governments can adopt in their rhetoric while the substance of their policies remains unchanged.

And it maybe needs to address more directly the difference between housing and health and education.

True, there are private hospitals and private schools, and public provision is increasingly a mixed market, but the NHS and state education are still the norm for the vast majority of people. In contrast, more than 60% of us own our own homes and more of us rent from a private than a social landlord.

If housing is a pillar of the welfare state, then housing benefit is at least, if not more, important than social housing.

Governments have for years looked to shift from the bricks and mortar subsidies for new homes to personal subsidies of housing benefit and more recently launched major support for the private market via Help to Buy.

Changing that balance and establishing social housing as an option for (in Labour’s phrase) ‘the many, not the few’ is both the challenge and the opportunity.

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