Radio review: Streets Apart

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 11.

In case you missed it, you still have chance to catch up with a superb history of social housing that ran over the last two weeks on Radio 4.

Lynsey Hanley’s Streets Apart told the story from the beginning of council housing in the 19th Century in Liverpool to the present. I got the impression that most of it was made before the fire at Grenfell Tower, but its shadow looms over everything.

Why is the series so good? Partly that Lynsey Hanley knows what she is talking about (as author of Estates: An Intimate History and Respectable: The Experience of Class). She is also an engaging presenter with an accent not normally heard on Radio 4 that comes from her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Solihull.

Partly because her interviewees know what they are talking about: they are a mixture of experts in local areas, in architecture, planning and housing and local residents who are given time to tell their stories.

But also because she recognises the nuances and contradictions in the history of social housing and in its present: Michael Heseltine comes out of it surprisingly well for the minister who introduced the Right to Buy; another Tory minister Harold Macmillan gets the last word; and the final episode features more than one side to current regeneration controversies.

Her message may be obvious in one sense and, as she says, naïve and utopian in another: in the wake of Grenfell Tower, housing needs the same national priority as health and education.

But the thesis behind it is also a challenge to those of us who would agree with all of that: ‘Social housing in Britain has suffered from the flaw of being regarded as being only for poor and working class people and not for everyone.’

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A system under strain

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 17.

Beneath the immediate crisis about a lack of new homes lies a long-running one about the homes that we have already built.

It’s hard to look much beyond the stat in a report published on Friday by the Local Government Association (LGA) that new homes built today will have to last 2,000 years at current rates of demolition and replacement.

Unless the output of the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey is really going to stand for as long as some of the glories of Ancient Rome, something clearly does not add up. This graph shows the age of the stock broken down by tenure:

The report by Residential Analysts finds that large numbers of homes across all tenures are not of appropriate quality, with the private rented sector representing the biggest cause for concern, with problems such as damp and poor energy efficiency concentrated in the oldest stock.

The number of homes failing to meet the Decent Homes standard has been improving in recent years total cost of bringing them up to scratch is still estimated at £27 billion, of which just £2 billlion is for social housing.

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Film review: Dispossession

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle is an important film that arrives at an even more important moment for social housing.

Even before the Grenfell Tower fire it would have posed vital questions about the speed at which we are running down the stock of social rented homes. In the wake of that awful night in June they have become existential ones about the way we house our poorest communities.

The documentary by Paul Sng tells the story of what’s happened to social housing since the introduction of the Right to Buy turned expansion into decline in the late 20th century and especially since regeneration of existing estates became a contentious issue in the early 21st century.

I finally caught up with it this week but there are plenty more screenings in cinemas and other venues around Britain over the next few months.

Narrated by Maxine Peake, it’s a story that will not be new to people who know housing but may well be to a more general audience

It’s about how we got from the Bevan and Macmillan building booms via the Thatcher property owning democracy and Tony Blair’s ‘no forgotten people’ speech on the Aylesbury estate to the demolition and diaspora of the Heygate.

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The state of social housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 19

Results from the English Housing Survey last week provide a detailed snapshot of who lives where and in what sort of conditions and how they feel about it.

The picture that emerges of social renting is not exactly a new one but it also confounds many of the stereotypes about the sector and the people who live in it.

Here is a baker’s dozen of the highlights that I picked out from the survey showing the state of the sector in 2015/16:

1) The overall picture: The social rented sector was home to 3.9m households in England – 2.3m with housing associations as their landlord and 1.6m with local authorities.

That total has stayed broadly the same for the last three years but the English Housing Survey does not separately identify a rising number of affordable rent properties (an estimated 123,000 by April 2015).

As home to 17% of households, social renting is now comfortably behind private renting (20%).

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Time for cross-party co-operation on housing?

Originally published on July 11 as a column for Inside Housing.

If we need to ‘invest in good work’ what about good homes?

Theresa May was speaking at the launch of the Taylor review of the gig economy on Tuesday exactly a year after she became prime minister.

In the wake of her failed election gamble, she needs non-Tory support to address the challenges identified in the report.

And her plea to the other parties to ‘come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country’ is being interpreted as being about more than just the labour market.

So if the challenge of precarious work requires cross-party co-operation what about that of precarious housing?

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Prospects for real change go backwards

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on June 21.

A scaled down Queen’s Speech with a dressed down monarch still left some room for housing but this is a humbled government with limited ambitions.

Left rudderless by the loss of its majority and the departure of key personnel from Downing Street, this is a legislative programme dominated by Brexit but with the dark shadow of Grenfell Tower looming over it.

There is room for a Draft Bill to end letting agent fees to private tenants and lots of warm words about the Housing White Paper but this is a very different Queen’s Speech to the one that seemed likely before the night of June 8 and the events of June 14.

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Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

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