Rumours of social housing’s resurrection have all-too-often been exaggerated, but lately we’ve seen a remarkable shift in tone. Could we finally be on the verge of a new beginning for a tenure that once dare not speak its name?
By Mark Cantrell
TALK is cheap, especially in politics, but this year we have witnessed a remarkable shift in attitudes towards social housing. The tone has turned decidedly warmer – and more promising – after the chill years of David Cameron’s government.
No longer quite the despised outcast, ministers now appear to acknowledge that social housing has an important role to play in tackling the housing crisis. Even the housing sector itself has changed its tune somewhat.
At best, in recent years, the sector has given the impression it was shying away from the stigma attached to the tenure, and the social problems it attempts to alleviate; ashamed, it seemed, to be social housing. At worst, elements of the sector gave every indication they’d be glad to see the back of it; a chance to go upmarket and chase a more lucrative clientele.
Then came Rethinking Social Housing, launched by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) in June, and suddenly homeownership was no longer quite the only game in town. Here was a bold declaration of social housing as an essential pillar of a civilised society.
“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,” said chief executive Terrie Alafat. “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. We must now reclaim social housing as a pillar of the society we want it to be, along with free health care and education.”
Evidently, the Government got the memo (if not quite the point). In August, it finally published its long-awaited Social Housing Green Paper. Though it demonstrated that ministers can’t quite shake off their obsession with home ownership, it nevertheless went down well for its positive regard for social housing.
“The Social Housing Green Paper makes an important contribution to the critical debate about what we think social housing is, what it does, and what we want it to be in the 21st Century,” said Gavin Smart, the CIH’s deputy chief executive.
Even so, the CIH had its misgivings, as Smart added: “The green paper rightly recognises the importance of new supply, but we are concerned that the plans for new affordable homes are not ambitious enough. Research shows we need a minimum of 78,000 of the most affordable homes each year, but in 2017/18 just over 5,000 were delivered – and we estimate that between 2012 and 2020 we will have lost 230,000 of those homes in total.”
The green paper was hailed by the Government as a “new deal” for social housing tenants. Like the rather more concrete CIH report, the paper was touted to start a national discussion, but it didn’t quite abandon the primacy of home ownership. As one of its five core principles, the paper’s aim is to build the social homes that are needed but “ensure that those homes can act as a springboard to home ownership”.
This wasn’t lost on the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC), which considered the Government’s long-belated efforts a “very green paper” with “little emphasis on solutions”.
“At face value, the proposals laid out in the green paper provide a leap in the right direction… there is much in the detail that will be pleasing to housing providers,” the organisation said. “There are of courses areas that may be of concern in the green paper – little emphasis on the funding for supply of homes for social rent, and continued emphasis on home ownership at the expense of other forms of tenure…
“The green paper appears to lack any real commitment to improving existing homes, in terms of revitalising communities, and has only limited proposals for decent standards.
“With an increasingly ageing population there will be substantial need for supported housing improvements to existing dwellings. There is an important opportunity for the green paper to explicitly recognise this and move away from ‘one size fits all’ approaches, which are not appropriate in many Northern areas.”
Riverside noted the lack of detail, too, but it welcomed the chance to thrash out some of the finer points of the sector’s wants and needs in the consultation that was launched alongside the green paper’s publication (which closed on 6 November). The organisation added: “While we are pleased that the Government recognises the stigma faced by social housing tenants, this can only be truly addressed once social housing becomes a tenure of choice and a benefit system is in place which covers housing costs in full for those who need support. Without investment to increase the supply of social housing, we will continue to see people fall through the safety net and suffer unnecessary hardship.”
Councils, of course, as the ‘Cinderella’ of new social housing supply, have quite an interest in the green paper proposals. As we know, the Local Government Association (LGA) had to wait a little longer to get its long-sought removal of the HRA borrowing cap, but it still had some cause to applaud the green paper; after all, it dropped plans to force the sale of council homes to fund the extension of right to buy to housing associations.
“This green paper is a step towards delivering more social homes but it is only a small step, compared to the huge and immediate need for more genuinely affordable homes,” said Councillor Judith Blake, the LGA’s housing spokesperson. “There is a desperate need to reverse the decline in council housing over the past few decades. The loss of social housing means that we are spending more and more on housing benefit to supplement expensive rents instead of investing in genuinely affordable homes.”
In further industry reaction to the green paper, Steve Close, chief executive of Together Housing Group, said: “The development of affordable homes is essential to meet the growing housing need, but the funding programmes also need to be increased to deal with some of the obsolete housing that remains in the region. We need new housing of all tenures and that is why we’re also building homes for shared ownership and for outright sale.”
Mark Henderson, chief executive of Home Group, said: “For too long we have seen those in social housing suffer from real stigma and we welcome the recognition that Government has made in the Green Paper about the need to tackle this… But we also want to see more done to meet the aspirations of our customers, especially given that 87% of them aspire to enter some form of home ownership. We won’t meet those aspirations unless we do more to deliver the additional homes we need and relieve the pressure on affordability.”
David Orr, [then] chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: “For 40 years we have failed to build anything like enough social housing… Without significant new investment in the building of more social housing, it is very hard to see how it can be a safety net and springboard for all the people who desperately need it. To do that we need to be build 90,000 new social rent homes every year.”
There’s a long way to go, still, before we can really start to walk the talk, but since the publication of the green paper, we’ve witnessed two further symbolic milestones in the journey.
First, Theresa May made history as the first PM in office to speak at a major housing event, when she appeared at the NHF’s Housing Summit in London. There, she had plenty of warm words for the sector, but she also offered cash – £2 billion – for the construction of new affordable and social rent homes. Then, at the Conservative Party Conference, she finally declared the end of the HRA borrowing cap; something council chiefs and housing bodies had long argued for.
The ground, evidently, is shifting, even if it’s still early days yet. But, here’s the rub; these may be nothing more than the hollow edicts of a dying administration. With the ferocious Conservative infighting taking place over Brexit, there is no guarantee that May won’t yet be suddenly expelled from Number 10, or that the country is lurched into a general election. And then all bets are off.
This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine #2, October 2018