Fine words on social housing only go so far

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

‘Homes for social rent are a fundamental part of our housing stock—a lifeline for those who would struggle to obtain a home at market rates.’

It’s a sign of how much has changed in the last six years that statements like that from Conservative politicians (in this case housing minister Rachel Maclean in a Commons debate last week) have become almost routine. For good measure, she also reaffirmed  ‘the unshakeable commitment of the government to drive up both the quality and the quantity of this nation’s housing stock’.

The comments are part of a steady conversion by ministers to the merits of a tenure that not so long ago they seemed intent on dismantling. Since Grenfell, there has been a steady softening in tone and relaxation in policy, with Theresa May as prime minister and Michael Gove as housing secretary prominent among the converts.

But all the fine words and tweaks to policy are not yet matched by results. As MPs from both sides of the house pointed out in the debate, the current output of 7,500 social rent homes a year fails to match the 21,600 a year lost to the Right to Buy and demolition, let alone the 90,000 a year that the all-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has consistently argued are needed.

All this in the same week as research by the National Housing Federation (NHF) showed that two million children are living in overcrowded homes with no personal space because they cannot access a suitable and affordable home.

Much of this is obviously down to the fact that the Treasury remains unconvinced about these arguments. True, £11.4 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) over four years represents huge progress on the days when it seemed like there would be no AHP at all. True, the government has titled the balance slightly more towards social rent and Right to Buy replacements. But this is still a fraction of what is required and the AHP been badly eroded by inflation.

And so much of the baleful legacy of 2010 to 2016 is still in operation and yet to be unravelled. As Inside Housing reported last week, affordable rent is now generating rents at double social rent levels in some areas. Pointedly, the biggest gap of all is in the Surrey Heath constituency of Michael Gove, where the rent on a three-bed affordable rent home is £1,125 a month compared to £557 a month at social rent.

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Gove’s confession only goes so far

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

If it’s broken, who broke it? If there were mistakes and errors, who made them?

It was quite an Easter week for Michael Gove as he moved into confessional mode first in a think tank report and then in a Today programme interview.

‘That the current housing model– from supply to standards and the mortgage market – is broken, we can all agree,’ the housing secretary wrote in an introduction to the report from Bright Blue and Shelter. ‘That change is necessary is undeniable. We are bringing about change – and we are determined to see it through.’

And, asked on the Today programme on Thursday (listen from 08:12), if he had gone through ‘an awakening’ on housing, he said that: ‘The thing that affected me most was the Grenfell fire. What the Grenfell inquiry, in particular, has subsequently brought to light were a chain of errors. I’m very happy to reiterate that there were some mistakes and errors that were made not just by the coalition government but by governments before which contributed to social tenants not getting the support that they deserve, not having their voices heard. And so change had to come and we are delivering that change.’

Note that Mr Gove leaves us with the same key message: others made the mistakes that broke the housing model and now he is here to fix things.

Some of what he’s saying is quite true – he has reversed much of the deregulation of the past – but the interview still begged more questions.

What exactly was he admitting to – and how much of the blame was he really taking for himself and his Conservative colleagues?

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What’s gone wrong with our housing – and what could go right

As symbols of failure, take a former council house in south London chopped up into six bedsits, housing association tenants waiting in vain for repairs and private renters searching non-stop for homes

As a symbols of success, take Vienna’s century of genuinely affordable rents, Barcelona’s long-term housing strategy and Singapore’s melding of the market and public ownership.

The Rental Health series stretching across BBC radio and television had all of that and more, from lots of jobs but no homes in the Highlands to the dire state of the rental market in Yorkshire to the mechanics of local housing allowance and Section 21 to people looking for housing alternatives in vans, co-housing and boats.

Those symbols of failure don’t come much starker than the three-bedroom council house on the Bampton estate in Forest Hill featured in the brilliantly appalling BBC Panorama documentary What’s Gone Wrong With Our Housing?

The first tenant moved into the home in 1971, bought it under the right to buy for £15,000 in 1984 and sold it for £85,000 in 1988. It is now owned by a private landlord who has converted it into six bedsits rented out for £960 a month each.

Most of what amounts to £60,000 a year in rent is paid in housing benefit by the government that sold it for a quarter of that.

As if that was not enough to make the point, the same private landlord has done the same thing to three other houses in the same terrace and is pocketing £250,000 a year.

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