Dead End

By Tom Murtha - on 22/07/2013

HACT's Chair Tom Murtha asks if we are currently witnessing the death of social housing?

As I walked the corporate splendour of the CIH exhibition in Manchester I began to wonder if we are witnessing the slow death of social housing, which provided the place of my birth, rescued my family when we were homeless and still provides a home for most of my large extended family.

The initial responses to the spending review indicated that Inside Housing’s Grant Homes campaign had been partly successful as the chancellor announced a small amount of capital investment in housing.

But when people looked at the small print it was clear that the overall amount was insignificant compared to the need. More importantly the grant rate at around £20k would only produce homes at high rents which most in need could not afford and even at those levels would not finance a sustainable building programme.

Discussions since the announcement have indicated that many of the current large developing associations are very cautious about their involvement in future funding programmes. Gearing rates for some are becoming dangerously high and welfare benefit reforms make assessments about rental income too uncertain even with the recent announcements on rent increase formula and rent convergence. The conclusion is clear there will be little new development in the next few years and any new homes that are built will be at rents that are too high for most of those in housing need. The housing crisis will become worse and the numbers of those in need will grow. The consequences of this for the people involved will be disastrous and the eventual cost to the economy will outweigh any current short term savings

I was a strong supporter of the Grant Homes campaign in the hope the government would recognise the evidence and increase capital investment at rates that would allow the development of traditional social housing to meet the growing housing need and kick-start the economy. Clearly this is not going to happen under the current government and it is not clear if a future Labour government would do anything that is different.

The personal and financial case for investment is obvious and I made it in these pages recently. For those of us who believe  passionately in the need for social housing this is depressing in itself but the minister’s statement at the conference had a sting in the tail. When he announced that he expected relets to be let at affordable rents or put up for sale another nail was driven into the coffin of social housing. If this policy is followed in accordance with his statement it will bring about the slow erosion of social housing as we know it, at the same time as we are witnessing the slow erosion of the welfare state.

The enforced transfer to affordable rents and the sale of traditional social housing is just one of a series of recent announcements which indicate this government’s direction of travel. For some time it has been correctly argued that affordable rents are not affordable to those in need and that they push up market rent. The move to fixed term tenures threatens to take away security for tenants and hinders social development and community sustainability. The welfare reforms in general and the bedroom tax in particular make it more difficult for those in need to maintain tenancies and encourages some associations to look at different markets which appear more secure. The various sale initiatives encourage an already dysfunctional housing market and the right to buy at giveaway discounts further erodes the number of social homes to rent. In addition the Deregulation Bill proposes another reduction in tenancy periods and removes the obligation on local authorities to have an housing strategy. The government’s support for alternative tenures is clear from its encouragement of the growth of a (mainly) unregulated private rented sector, which as a recent report has suggested is producing rents that are not affordable in many parts of the UK. As a result of all of these initiatives and government policy it is estimated that the social housing sector could be reduced to a residual tenure in the next five years.

Most of these proposals are slipped in by non-housing legislation as there is no overt housing strategy. The death of social housing is being introduced by stealth and is therefore much more difficult to identify and oppose. However it is true to say that some housing associations have colluded, knowingly or unknowingly, in the process. Each initiative that took us farther away from the ideal of social housing has been implemented by some in a desperate attempt to supply some new homes in a period of shortage.

As I walked the exhibition I considered whether the sector had the strength and courage to say that enough is enough and that we will no longer collaborate in this process that is eroding something that has taken more than 60 years to create? Will we finally begin to raise our voices to defend social housing? Or will we continue to sleepwalk into disaster?  Am I expecting too much at a time when there are few voices opposing the erosion of the welfare state itself? I have argued elsewhere that it is only when the welfare state has been completely dismantled will we realise why it was established by the post war consensus. The origins of post war social housing lie in the same consensus. I hope that we don’t have to wait until social housing is just a distant memory before people realise why it is needed and therefore should be defended. Decent housing is a basic human right and it is too important to be left to the vagaries of the private rented sector where the motivation is profit and not need.

As I was leaving the exhibition hall I encountered two beacons of hope in this bleak environment. The first was an old friend and campaigner, Bill Randall who reminded me that we had once worked together for the National Housing Federation on a number of sector campaigns where housing leaders joined with others and took to the streets to oppose and eventually overcome equally draconian proposals and cuts. The second was outside the hall where the anti-bedroom tax campaign led by tenants and residents was in full voice. Social housing grew out of these campaigning traditions. Maybe some of us have become too comfortable or too professional to take to the streets with those who are already resisting but we can use our voice in other ways to argue for an alternative housing vision, which echoes the post war consensus in a 21st century context, where the right to a decent home at a price you can afford is recognised again, where social housing lives on.

This blog was initially published on Inside Housing on Friday 19 July 2013. Click here to read the article on Inside Housing.

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