“We need a national effort to tackle stigmatisation”: on the Social Housing Green Paper

Housing association homes in north London, 2003. Image: Getty.

Not long ago housing was an issue on the political fringe. Now it’s firmly in the mainstream, with terms like ‘viability assessment’ and ‘section 106 agreement’ creeping beyond the pages of websites like this one to penetrate the national vocabulary.

The nation’s newfound interest in housing and planning policy is great – but the reasons behind it are not. It’s widely recognised that there’s a housing crisis, with home ownership increasingly out of reach and some 1.2m people on local authority housing waiting lists across the UK.

During the Cameron years, the government’s response was focused almost entirely on home ownership, with demand-side reform through Help to Buy and the proposal to extend Right to Buy to housing association properties, while cutting affordable housing grants by a massive 60 per cent.

The very fact of the Social Housing Green Paper is therefore a stark and welcome change. The government should be credited for listening to tenants’ concerns and putting social housing back on its agenda.

Tough on stigma? Get tough on its causes

The Green Paper reports tenants often feel they are treated as “second class citizens” and “benefits scroungers”. This is a problem we all must tackle.

Survey data shows that Britons estimate unemployment among those in social housing at 24 per cent. The true figure is just 7 per cent, compared to 4 per cent in the private rented sector. Looking at the likes of Channel 4’s Benefits Street, it’s easy to see why people make this mistake.

Damaging stereotypes have been able to take hold not only because of the media, but because social housing is less visible than it once was. Unlike the NHS or education system, most people simply don’t interact with subsidised housing in their day-to-day lives.

Social renting in the UK peaked in 1981 and has been in decline since, with private rentals overtaking social in 2012.

Source: Data produced by the LSE for the Benefit to Society campaign, p5.

Today, just 17 per cent of people live in social rented accommodation and it comprised only 2.5 per cent of the homes built last year.

Source: Data from the 2016/17 English Housing Survey as used in the Social Housing Green Paper, p13.

Academics term this ‘residualisation’: the concentration of more disadvantaged households in social housing.

As housing associations, we can do more in partnership with residents and councils to improve the fabric of social homes and bring together communities to lead improvement and change perceptions. Nationally, the most powerful commitment to tackling this would be backing a meaningful increase in the supply of social rented housing.

Regulation and redress

The Green Paper calls for more effective redress processes for residents and “sharper teeth” for the regulator. We recognise how important this is because social housing residents aren’t conventional consumers: they lack the power to vote with their feet, meaning underperforming landlords don’t suffer a loss of revenue. This puts a greater onus on housing associations to listen and act on feedback – so we’re open to measures that make us more accountable.

The government also proposes new league tables for housing associations. These need to be designed carefully. One only need look at the criticism levelled at league tables for schools, which are often seen as encouraging a culture of compliance and box-ticking, rather than focusing on the needs of pupils.

Just as each school operates in a different context, there are factors that make every housing association unique – our history, the areas we operate in, and the quality of stock we manage. It’s therefore important that league tables or KPIs don’t become a blunt instrument and that the primary relationship remains between tenant and landlord.

Money, money, money

The government has signalled that Right to Buy restrictions may be relaxed, allowing councils more flexible use of receipts. This is welcome. Councils have a real appetite to build homes and, as a nation, we’ll only be able to tackle the housing crisis if they can play a bigger role.

Source: Data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government included in the Social Housing Green Paper, p14.

It’s on the point of funding more broadly that the paper has received most criticism. To be fair, this Green Paper was never going to be about funding, but this is the nub of the matter. The housing association cross-subsidy model – which relies on the sale of private homes to fund affordable housing – is at full stretch, and we can only increase our output with a new long-term funding settlement.

So, what does good look like?

A good outcome from the Green Paper would encourage new and creative ways of working with residents. It would see a national effort to tackle stigmatisation. Government would introduce a new funding settlement for social rented homes, supported by relaxing the rules around local authority building.

A poor outcome would be the opposite: social housing providers in a regulatory straitjacket; lip service paid to tackling stigma; no new funding; and public sector builders unable to reach their potential.

The Green Paper is encouraging in its tone. We hope this leads to a pragmatic approach and a willingness to engage further with those who build and manage social housing and – crucially – with residents themselves.

Paul Hackett is chair of the G15 group of London’s largest housing associations.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.