Social housing became the tenure that suddenly dared speak its name at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference and exhibition last week, but it remains unclear whether Government is truly ready to hear its call
By Mark Cantrell
THE Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) kicked off a scorcher of a conference and exhibition with an unequivocal declaration of social housing’s vital role in creating a civilised society.
It marked something of a sea-change on previous years, it must be said. At best, social housing has almost seemed to be regarded as an embarrassment; at worst, a bygone tenure to be swept aside by the upwardly mobile aspirations of sector chiefs with their eye on more lucrative markets.
But at CIH 2018 the sector appeared to cast aside all doubt and embrace social housing.
“We must now reclaim social housing as a pillar of the society we want to be, along with free health care and education,” said CIH chief executive, Terrie Alafat as she opened the conference. “And we need to push on – creating an ambitious vision of what a plentiful supply of social housing can do to help people thrive in communities that prosper… Ultimately, we cannot call ourselves a civilised society if we are failing to provide a safe, decent and affordable home for everyone who needs one.”
The change of heart – or maybe just coming out of the closet – on social housing has backing from research and a major new report exploring the tenure’s place and function in modern society, which was formally launched at this year’s conference.
Rethinking Social Housing was launched to “spark a national debate”. As Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive said during the session to discuss the report, it’s not the end of the conversation – but the beginning.
The key point, however, from this session as in Alafat’s opening address, is that social housing is critical to solving the housing crisis – and, indeed, it is far from being the tenure of last resort.
Stigma and ‘Benefits Street’ stereotyping remains very real, of course; hardly surprising given the concerted ideological warfare that’s been waged against the tenure and its tenants for a good few years now. Pundits, politicians and media alike have all had a stirring finger in this pot.
And, it must be said, elements of the social sector itself have oftentimes been rather coy in coming forward to challenge such blanket perceptions of their diverse resident-base.
Remember those discussions about changing the brand? As if complex social problems can be wished away with a fancy new name and logo. In sense, that’s why the message to embrace social housing loud and proud is potentially a powerful move for the sector; branding be damned, this is what we do.
Public perception and attitudes can be both fickle, stubborn, and contradictory, but not immovable.
As part of Rethinking Social Housing, polling carried out by Ipsos MORI revealed that the tenure’s standing and future in society is not the lost cause we have so-often been led to believe. The findings showed that:
- More than six out of 10 people across England support more social housing being built in their area
- 80% of people agree that social housing is important because it helps people on lower incomes get housing which wouldn’t be affordable in the private rented sector
- 78% agree that social housing should be available to people who cannot afford the cost of renting privately, as well as to the most vulnerable
- 68% agree that social housing plays in important role in tackling poverty in Britain
- 65% of people agree that the negative view of the people that live in social housing is unfair
“The message we got from our research was loud and clear – social housing has a unique and positive role to play and it is highly valued,” Alafat added. “It’s also clear there is a huge disparity between the support for social housing demonstrated in this report and the current level of investment. And there is still a stigma attached to social housing as a product and the people who call it home. We can only truly start to tackle the chronic shortage of affordable housing in this country by putting social housing at the centre of government plans to solve the housing crisis.”
Even the politicians had changed their tone, if not quite their heart. The housing minister, Dominic Raab, had plenty of sweet talk for his audience, and appeared to accept the message borne on the back of the Rethinking Social Housing report that people who live in the tenure are people like us.
“Let’s remember, nearly 60% of all adult social tenants are in work,” he said. “The overwhelming majority are good neighbours. They take pride in their communities, they share the same aspirations we all do: to live in a safe, comfortable and happy home. Many just happen to live in areas with extremely high housing costs…
“So, let’s tackle some of the lingering prejudices that paint all social tenants as relying on welfare. Let’s show them the respect they deserve, and let’s also open the door to them sharing in the same aspirations we all hold. Social housing should be a spring board for social mobility, not a glass ceiling. After all, many social tenants aspire to own their own home.”
However, as Raab ran through the relative routine of policy proposals, he had little of real substance, except for one thing – he did not accept the CIH’s demand to suspend right-to-buy. Indeed, in his speech he told the audience he was looking forward to the launch of a West Midlands pilot for its extension to housing associations.
Suspending right-to-buy was one of the key demands in the Rethinking Social Housing report. This was given fresh impetus by the latest figures on sales released by the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government.
The figures revealed that 11,465 homes were sold by councils under the right-to-buy scheme in 2017/18, but only 4,944 were started or acquired to replace them using the receipts. Since right to buy discounts were increased in April 2012, 66,647 homes have been sold, while 17,911 have been started or acquired to replace them. Inexorably, the availability of council housing is diminishing at a time when it’s never been more needed.
“It cannot be right that not only are we not building enough homes for social rent, we are losing them at a time when we need them more than ever,” Alafat said in response to these figures. “Our analysis shows that we have lost more than 150,000 social rented homes between 2012 and 2017 due to right to buy and other factors, and that figure will reach 230,000 by 2020 unless we take action now.
“We support the principle of helping tenants move into home ownership but it cannot be at the expense of other people in need. We need to look at fairer ways to help tenants into home ownership, because this is clearly not the way to do it.
“We are calling on the Government to suspend the right-to-buy to stem the loss of social rented homes, remove the barriers stopping councils from replacing homes sold under the scheme and look at more effective ways to help people access home ownership.”
Finally, social housing spoke with a bold and confident voice, and dared to demand its place as an enabler of civilised society. But going by Raab’s performance, government might talk a good game, but its fingers are still in its ears. Well, you can’t have everything…