U-turns but no vision in social housing green paper

Originally posted on August 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For all its faults (and there are many), the social housing green paper is still a remarkable document.

What I think it is the first-ever housing green paper from a Conservative government represents progress in itself: rather than taking half-baked ideas from right wing think tanks and putting them straight into legislation, the government is actually consulting us on its policies.

But that is just for starters: the green paper runs up the white flag on two of the barmiest and most controversial elements of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and goes on to propose what amounts to a rewrite of much more of what the government has done since 2010.

The two explicit u-turns mean that local authorities will no longer be required to pay a levy on higher-value council homes as they fall vacant and fixed-term tenancies will no longer be mandatory for new council tenants.

This is not a complete surprise – neither policy had yet been implemented – but it is an indication of just how much the Grenfell Tower fire has changed the politics of social housing.

And the non-implementation (or even repeal) of the forced sales levy means that there is no source of funding for a third policy that was a flagship Tory manifesto pledge in 2015 -the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

While the green paper has some token references to the pilot programme and the possibility of portable discounts, this undermines the whole basis of the deal that most housing associations enthusiastically signed up to when they thought somebody else would be paying the bill.

The smell of burnt rubber does not stop there. Among the many proposals to give tenants more say and rights of redress is the first consultation on the regulation of social housing since 2010.

Resident dissatisfaction with their landlords, says the green paper, ‘could stem from the adequacy of the current consumer standards, the way in which they are enforced, or both’.

In particular, it highlights the limits on the Regulator’s ability to enforce consumer standards imposed by the ‘serious detriment’ test and the need for a better service for residents.

This entire system was of course the product of the 2010 review and the determination of former housing minister Grant Shapps to make the Tenant Services Authority ‘toast’ and scrap all that nonsense about empowering residents.

The parallels do not stop there: the green paper also asks whether there is ‘a need for a stronger representation for residents at a national level’.

Might one option be to restore the National Tenant Voice that the government unceremoniously scrapped in 2010?

Other elements of the green paper also have a retro feel. The title –  ‘A New Deal for Social Housing’-  harks straight back to the slogans of 1997 and it proposes an update of perhaps the most successful New Labour housing policy, the Decent Homes Standard.

So far, so good. All of these changes represent a recognition that the post-2010 Tory view of social housing as a subsidy-hogging, poverty-generating tenure is no longer tenable.

Instead there is a direct reference back to the era when the Conservatives vied with Labour to promise more council houses as the green paper revives the slogan from the 1951 Tory manifesto about housing being ‘the first social service’.

But the proposals only go so far. Ministers heard loud and clear from tenants that one of their biggest concerns is tackling stigma and the green paper has lots of warm words on this.

However, it will take more than a street party or a best neighbourhood competition to reverse what is the legacy of years of government policy and ministers cannot in one breath say they value social housing and in the next argue that it should be ‘a springboard to home ownership’.

While expanding supply is seen as one of the five key themes, there is no new money, not even in additional borrowing capacity for local authorities and it was no surprise to hear housing minister Kit Malthouse flounder on the Today programme when questioned about this on Tuesday morning.

The green paper puts its faith in league tables or (worse) an NHS-style ‘friends and family test’ as ways of holding landlords to account for their performance, and even hints at linking grant to league position, but it is far from clear how any of this will work.

And then there’s another legacy of the Shapps era: the promise to replace additional homes sold under increased Right to Buy discounts with new affordable homes on a one-for-one basis.

Another separate consultation admits what was clear from the start – that the promise cannot be kept – but it proposes not so much a u-turn as a moving of the goalposts.

Local authorities are offered flexibilities including more time to use the receipts and a potential increase in how much of a home they can pay for in some areas but could also be allowed to replace sold-off social rent homes with shared ownership.

And in case that does not work, the government is also keen to change the terms of the promise itself by counting all sales and all new affordable homes.

This is a green paper that would have been unimaginable even two years ago and which proposes some positive changes to some very negative policies introduced since 2010.

That is progress in itself but, as with Monday’s rough sleeping strategy, it does not go far enough. We are still waiting for what former housing secretary Sajid Javid promised would be ‘the most substantial report of its kind for a generation’ let alone the green paper’s ‘new vision for social housing’.

 

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