When green becomes whitePosted: December 11, 2020 | |
Originally published as a column in the December issue of Inside Housing.
What’s the difference between a ‘new deal for social housing’ and a ‘charter for social housing residents’?
The shift in language between the green and white papers certainly seems to signal a change in emphasis – and not in a good way if you are old enough to remember John Major’s Citizens’ Charter and Cones Hotline from the 1990s.
White paper plans to strengthen consumer regulation, make it easier for tenants to complain to the ombudsman and introduce independent inspection of landlords look generally positive – even the Conservatives are essentially recreating the system they scrapped so confidently in 2010. The regulator will also get new powers over for-profit landlords.
But for me what’s really telling is what has gone missing between the green paper and the white paper and what that says about the government’s wider vision for social housing.
Back in 2018, in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire, Theresa May and her housing secretary James Brokenshire were keen to show that they understood this. The green paper quoted approvingly the famous description of housing as ‘the first social service’ from the 1951 manifesto and promised ‘a fundamental shift in the state’s approach to social housing and the people who call it home’.
Their ‘desire to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, to tackle stigma and ensure social housing can be both a safety net and a springboard to home ownership’ was a slightly uneasy balancing act but, as I read it, the rebalancing was towards the idea of a safety net – the idea that’s it fine to want a stable, secure, social rented home.
Two years on, the white paper still plays lip service to that idea but the emphasis is the other way around, harking back to the glory days of the right to buy with housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s pet idea of the right to shared ownership.
Along with the rhetoric, the green paper also promised changes in substance. Provisions in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to make fixed term tenancies mandatory for council tenants would not be implemented after listening to residents’ concerns. And local authorities would be given the confidence to invest in home building by repealing the levy on vacant higher value council homes ‘when parliamentary time allows’.
As far as I’m aware, more than two years later, time has still not allowed. And with the Centre for Policy Studies making the case once again that high-value council homes should be sold, the ideological threat has not gone away.
The failure to even mention those changes in the white paper suggests at the very least different priorities and at the worse the absence of any wider vision. The not so subtle implication is that the problems with social housing have nothing to do with central government, and can be solved by making landlords accountable to tenants as consumers.
Tenants will have a right ‘to have your voice heard by your landlord’, whatever that means, but nothing that comes close to the government-funded National Tenant Voice that was also scrapped in 2010.
But this is a charter for residents, not just tenants, which brings me to the right to shared ownership and the new model that includes no repair bills for the first ten years. The impact on landlord finances and development programmes very much remains to be seen but what of existing shared owners?
The new model must surely mean that buyers will look to new homes first, making existing homes with inferior terms in the lease harder to sell and worth less.
That is if they are worth anything. The white paper has plenty to say about what the government has already done on building safety and cladding remediation but nothing new to offer leaseholders including shared owners who still face crippling bills. Not much of a new deal.