There’s a fundamental problem with the government’s social housing green paper

Social housing in west London. Grenfell is on the left. Image: Getty.

Three months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Savid Javid, then Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, announced a Housing Green Paper. After it had rejected the many calls for the state of social housing to be considered as part of the public enquiry, the government had, politically, little choice.

Capturing the central problems exposed by the fire Javid, identified three key areas that the green paper would look at: quality and safety, the way tenants are listened to and their concerns acted on, and the number of social homes being built. He promised “root and branch reform”, and claimed the housing green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.

The shock of Grenfell, combined with growing calls from Tories in local government for reversals of a number of past Conservative government policies, led the optimists among us to hope that the green paper might demonstrate that vital lessons had indeed been learned from the tragedy. A decisive attempt to solve one of the most challenging issues facing vast swathes of the population would have also granted a weak and unpopular prime minister some much needed political capital.

But those opportunities have not been taken – and the long awaited green paper has left many feeling distinctly underwhelmed.  Although it is a consultation document, intended to spark further discussions toward more concrete proposals, the somewhat messy direction the document sets can lead neither to the step change in social housing that we were initially promised, nor do much to deliver many of its purported objectives.

The paper shows the government has read the public mood on housing: there is no more capacity to tolerate the type of extreme and unpopular policy measures pushed through during the Cameron years. The document announces that councils will no longer be forced to sell off their high value homes; nor must they replace current lifetime secure tenancies with fixed term ones that last just a few years. (Both of these policies were requirements of the 2016 Housing and Planning Act.)

It also begins a process of strengthening regulation of the sector. By contrast, Cameron’s “bonfire of regulations” did away with the previous regulatory agencies, the Audit Commission and the Tenant Services Authority.

Such policy reversals are welcome – but they do not begin to touch the sides of the damage caused by the deliberately targeted decimation of social housing carried out over the past four decades. There are no reversals of the changes to Housing Association finance that allowed unaffordable ‘affordable’ rents to replace social level ones, for instance; nor to the hated ‘bedroom tax’, which has driven so many social housing tenants into debt and desperation.

The green paper’s attention to responsiveness and accountability does nod to some of the problems exposed by Grenfell.  The paper sets out much needed moves towards improving tenant voice and empowerment, such as league tables for housing providers, a more effective complaints system, and a stronger regulator. These would be welcome – if they prove to be effective. 

The rub

Unfortunately those measures are undermined by the papers proposals for housing supply.

Despite the fact that adequate provision of social housing has positive knock on effects for the affordability of privately rented and owned homes; that, contrary to popular imagination, council housing is not subsidised but instead more than covers the cost of the initial investment through rents; or that it was only during periods of local authority building that adequate numbers of homes across the sectors were provided to meet the nation’s housing needs  – despite all that, the government is simply unable to acknowledge such wide ranging benefits of publicly provided housing.

And there’s the rub in this green paper: the Conservative party is fundamentally opposed to state provision of public services. It cannot tolerate the idea of social housing as a secure long term housing solution for large sections of the population as of value in itself. 


Even in its most generous, one-nation manifestations, the Conservative Party has seen public housing as suitable only for the poorest. Its more rabid neo-liberal free-marketeers have never hidden their disdain both for social housing and its residents. And so for them social housing can at best only be a safety net of last resort – or a springboard to home ownership.

Of course, this was not a time for government to further remove the state from involvement in housing provision. But the opposition to state provision, and obsession with home ownership, are clearly visible in the green paper – and they counteract its attempts to empower social housing residents.

Recently some councils have innovated to form new council owned housing companies that have enabled them to build a small number of homes at social rent levels: while these couldn’t offer tenants the most secure local authority tenancies, they were at least protected from right to buy.

But the housing green paper proposes extending right to buy to these homes. Its other proposals include transferring local authority housing stock to community-based bodies, and introducing shared ownership to local authority homes, with a stake as small as just 1 per cent on offer for tenants. These measures all build on previous neo-liberal successes in the dismantling of public housing provision.

The root of the issue here is that Right to Buy has had truly devastating consequences that have never been reversed.

Last year Housing Associations and Local Authorities sold 23,000 genuinely affordable social rent level homes through right to buy – more than four times the number of social rent homes that were built in that same year. Over 150,000 social homes have been lost since 2012 through right to buy, demolitions, and transferal from social to ‘affordable’ rents.

The numbers of council homes lost through the right to buy scheme since its launch in 1980 are simply staggering. In Islington alone, 12,000 homes have been sold, in Bristol 18,500, and in Manchester just under 21,000: the wider Greater Manchester region has lost 84,000 homes through the policy. In total, 2m homes have been lost through this policy in England.

Local Authorities were not allowed to keep the money from sales – though to give it some credit the document does hint that this may change. And, crucially, councils have been prevented from borrowing against the value of their existing housing stock in order to build new homes.

One area of consensus across left and right in local government is the need to lift of the borrowing cap that prevents councils building desperately needed homes.  The green paper restates last year’s announcement of a one-off £880m fund, that some council’s will be allowed to bid to borrow from over the next four years. But even the Conservative leader of the Local Government Commission has said that this is nowhere near enough.

Social housing once housed 42 per cent of the population, across a range of social classes and at rents truly affordable to the masses. But the sector has been deliberately undermined and starved of resources, to a point of such dire shortage that social housing can now be allocated only to the luckiest of those in the most extreme hardship. While that continues, social housing and its residents will continue to be marred by the stigma attached to them by successive neo-liberal governments – and the voices of residents will never be respected.

And that’s where we are, more than a year on from the worst domestic fire since the Second World War, in which 72 people were killed and a whole community left devastated, with hundreds of those affected by the fire still languishing in temporary accommodation. There is nothing in this green paper which will have any significant positive impact on the supply of social rent homes.

With the minimum acknowledgement of the current dire situation in housing provision possible, Theresa May has given us a weak, confused, and contradictory policy platform. Once again, she has shown that she has neither the vision nor passion of Benjamin Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher.

Pilgrim Tucker is a community organiser and campaigner. She tweets as @PilgrimTucker.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.