What the English Housing Survey says about social renting

Originally posted on July 18 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first in a series of blogs looking at the detailed findings of the latest English Housing Survey considers what the social rented sector looked like in 2016/17.

Nothing has changed

For the third year in a row the survey shows that there were slightly more social homes than 12 months before but the sector is still housing a steadily smaller proportion of the population.

Social housing’s tenure share was down to 17.1% in 2016/17, with housing associations accounting for a slightly higher 10.3% and local authorities falling again to 6.8%. The slow decline – from 21% in 1997 – means that social housing now houses a smaller share of the population than at any time since the early 1950s.

Everything has changed

The survey obviously covers the year before the Grenfell Tower fire and so only hints at some of the issues that will be covered in the imminent (we hope) social housing green paper.

The positive news for landlords and tenants is that the survey shows that fire safety in social housing is generally higher than in other sectors: 1% of housing association and 2% of local authority homes had a significantly higher than average risk of fire compared to 4% of owner-occupied and 6% of private rented homes.

But that will not be of much comfort when the pre-2017 system did not even consider the possibility of inflammable cladding, shoddy construction work and (as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee points out today) a regulatory system riddled with conflicts of interest.

Who lives in social housing?

As shown in previous surveys, social housing tends to be home to the poorest sections of the population and its households are far more likely to include someone with a long-term illness or disability than other sectors.

The average time social renters have lived at their current address is 11.3 years, compared to 3.9 years for private renters. More than a fifth of council tenants have lived in their home for more than 30 years.

However, other things have changed. Some 42% of social tenants are now in work (up from 31% ten years ago). This is still significantly lower than in other sectors but just 6.2% are unemployed and even the proportion who are economically inactive (reflecting those higher levels of disability) has fallen from 28% to 22% in the last ten years.

Some 75% of social renters were in the lowest two income quintiles in 2016/17 but slightly surprisingly the distribution has changed within that: 45% were in the lowest income quintile in 2016/17 compared to 55% in 2006/07.

An apparent slight increase in the number of tenants in the highest income quintile over the last 10 years is dismissed as ‘not statistically significant’.

Whoever is housing minister this week might want to note that one, along with the long-term impact of strangled supply: the survey shows that the number of moves into and within the social rented sector has almost halved in the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, work and pensions ministers might look at what’s happened on another measure: over the last 20 years overcrowding in social housing has risen from 5% to 7% while under-occupation has fallen from 12% to 8%.


Social rents remain much lower than private rents – the survey does not show much overall impact from affordable rent – and social tenants’ incomes are also much lower.

The mean weekly social rent excluding service charges was £102 in 2016/17 compared with £192 for private renters, while the mean weekly household income was £403 (£696).

Social renters were spending a third of their income including housing benefit on their rent in London and 27% outside the capital.

The findings on housing benefit may confound a few stereotypes too. Some 59% of social renters received housing benefit in 2016/17, down from 65% in 1996/97. Of those who received housing benefit, 36% were in work, 31% retired and 23% economically inactive.

The proportion of tenants who were currently in rent arrears or had been in the last 12 month has risen from 15% to 25% over the last 20 years.

However, there were some more surprising results when tenants were asked the reasons for their rent arrears.

Back in 1996/97 the commonest reason was reductions in or problems with housing and other benefits. By 2016/17 the proportion saying this has fallen – despite seven years of austerity.

The commonest reason now is other debts or responsibilities while the factors showing the biggest increase over the last 20 years are both related to work: illness and working fewer hours or less overtime.

Tenant satisfaction

The survey findings here should ring some alarm bells for social landlords. While they are not particularly new, Grenfell throws them into much sharper focus.

Social renters are less happy with their accommodation (81% very or fairly satisfied) than private renters (84%) and owner-occupiers (95%).

On the plus side, they are more happy with their tenure than private renters, something that should make free marketeers reflect on the wisdom of cutting security and raising rents in social housing.

Social tenants were also more satisfied with the housing services provided by their landlord/freeholder than home owners (presumably reflecting the dissatisfaction of leaseholders).

On the negative side, they were less satisfied than private renters and 15% of social tenants thought that their landlord’s housing services had got worse over the last 12 months.

And social tenants are less happy with how their landlord carries out repairs (66% fairly or very dissatisfied) than private tenants (72%).

True, this may reflect higher expectations of social landlords and satisfaction has not deteriorated in the last 10 years. However, it is still striking that social landlords are rated below a sector that is frequently portrayed as not doing any repairs and evicting tenants when they complain.

The top reasons why social tenants said they are unhappy with repairs were the landlord being slow to get things done (28%), the landlord doing the bare minimum (22%) and the landlord not bothering (19%).

Full results of the English Housing Survey 2016/17 are available here.



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