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.

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Grenfell’s ‘culture of non-compliance’

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on June 5.

Yes it was the cladding but expert reports for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire find multiple fire safety failures in the building and its refurbishment and management and in the wider regulatory system and construction industry.

The first thing that leaps out of the report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane is a timeline that shows that the conditions for ‘Stay Put’ advice to residents had ‘substantially failed’ by 01:26 on the morning of the fire.

This was within half an hour of the fire breaking out in Flat 16 and the London Fire Brigade did not abandon Stay Put until 02:47.

Those conclusions have already made some of the headlines but Dr Lane makes clear that there is a deeper context for them.

The way that high-rise buildings are designed and the way that fires in them are fought in them rely on the fact that multi-storey external envelope fires are not meant to happen.

So the fire at Grenfell rendered invalid all of the basic assumptions about fighting fires from the inside and telling residents of other flats to stay inside them because they will be protected by compartmentation.

That meant there had to be an improvised approach to fighting the fire from the outside on the night but most of the building was always going to out of reach even for aerial appliances – the whole reason why the risk of external fires should be designed out in the first place.

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Remembering Ronan Point

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

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

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From housing ladder to housing treadmill

Originally posted on April 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Once upon a time the image of a ladder was a fair representation of the housing system. Not anymore.

The old days in which the home-owning majority saved for a deposit and got a mortgage, a significant majority put their names down for a council house and got one and the rest used the private rented sector as a temporary transition are long gone.

And a report out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests a new image has replaced the ladder for people on low incomes struggling with high housing costs and insecure jobs and tenancies: a housing treadmill, where people ‘were running to stay and were worried about falling off completely’.

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What – and who – is social housing for?

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

I’ve lost count of the number of inquiries taking place into the future of social housing.

Sajid Javid wanted his forthcoming green paper to ‘kick off a nationwide conversation’ only to see Alok Sharma reshuffled in the middle of hearing what tenants had to say.

But the conversation is at least taking place. Whether it’s Labour, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter or similar initiatives in the devolved nations, everyone is set to have their say.

The content will range far and wide from governance to safety, quality to quantity and accountability to tenants’ rights but there are also basic questions to be answered about what and who social housing is for.

Some vital context for this comes in the latest edition of the UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

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Where the money really goes in housing

Three comparisons leap out from the latest edition of the indispensable UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

The first two are not new in themselves and the third is only a crude estimate but all three need repeating again and again for a real appreciation of where spending on housing goes and exactly who is subsidising who.

First comes the main one highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH): the shift from bricks and mortar to personal subsidies, or from grants for new homes and repairs to old ones to housing benefit.

This series of pie charts from the Review shows the change over the last 40 years and the total amount of housing subsidies in real terms:

Chapters tables charts 2018

Note first that supply subsidies have sunk to just 4.3 per cent of the total pie – this despite all the cuts in housing benefit seen since 2010 and the fact that the figures to not include continuing tax reliefs for home owners (see below for more on that).

Second, note that this does not save money. Total subsidies are now 48 per cent higher in real terms than at the turn of the century (when admittedly social housing investment was very low) but they are also approaching the levels of 30 years ago (when investment was significantly higher and the unemployment rate was three times what it is now).

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A benefit to society

News that 90% of social housing tenants feel that the media presents stereotypes of them is depressing but sadly not surprising.

As a report launched at the House of Commons today by the Benefit to Society campaign argues, the negative views are embedded in whole swathes of TVprogramming that links housing tenure to benefits status.

But it’s not just about poverty porn like Benefits Street and Council House Crackdown and tabloid headlines about scroungers and large families.

More thoughtful programmes like How to get a Council House can mine the same themes and generate the same hostility.

And even supposedly objective TV and broadsheet news coverage can strengthen the stereotypes by resorting to the lazy clichés of ‘sink’ and ‘crumbling’ estates and using stock pictures and idents of tower blocks and abandoned shopping trolleys.

So it is good to see that my union, the National Union of Journalists, is backing the Fair Press for Tenants guide aimed at journalists, PR people and documentary makers.

And the level of media interest in today’s launch and opinion poll also bodes well and is a chance to combat the stereotypes and change a few opinions.

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