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.
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.