The fight for social housing

By Tom Murtha - on 13/02/2014

The HCA Prospectus marks another milestone in the slow death of social housing, but the sector must fight to defend it, says HACT's Chair Tom Murtha

So now we know, thanks to the excellent article by Colin Wiles, that the HCA Prospectus marks another milestone in the slow death of social housing. I predicted this last year in my blog Dead End. What worries me is how little we are doing to resist this threat to a tenure which provided the place of my birth, a home for most of my early life, rescued my family from homelessness when I was 14 and still provides a decent home for millions of ordinary people. Why is there not the same outcry against the imminent death of social housing as there is against the threat to the National Health Service when they both cater for a basic human right?

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way. When I argue for extra investment in social housing I am often told that the country cannot afford the grant rates that once made it possible to build these homes. If we accept this, we are then left with a ridiculous situation where grants are so low that we invent a product called affordable housing which clearly is not by any definition of the word. It becomes even more bizarre when we are forced to sell off valuable social housing to pay for homes that are not affordable. Finally we reach the insanity of transferring what’s left of social housing into a product that most ordinary people cannot afford without recourse to benefit, which of course will soon be cut again.

On top of this we are being asked to build smaller homes with no consideration of local needs or demographic trends and building regulations are being reduced. The likely outcome of all of this is that we will be left with unaffordable poor quality homes which will be difficult to let in the future.

All of this is justified by a political and economic doctrine that says this is the only way forward if we are to recover from the economic recession. This ignores the fact that there are other economic theories where public investment in homes and other projects are seen as a legitimate means of building our way out of a recession. We all know that this is what happened in the 1950s when the UK was suffering from a crippling post war debt burden.

Even if you do not accept that there is another economic way, we should still argue to change the government priorities. Most decisions on government investment and cuts are not driven by economic necessity but by political will. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new HCA Prospectus which is probably the most politicised document ever produced by a funding agency in my career. It is not a lack of money that drives the government approach to social housing it is a political agenda that sees it as part of the big welfare state which this government is determined to eradicate. It is no coincidence that people in receipt of social security and those living in social housing have been demonised by ministers as a means of justifying their actions.

As Vince Cable said the next round of cuts are a political and ideological commitment not an economic one. If the political will is there to invest £billions in HS2 why can’t we continue to argue for more investment in social housing, which would provide a quicker boost the economy and more importantly help build much needed homes for those in need? I know where I would rather spend the money.

So the next time someone tells you that we have to accept the current situation because there is no alternative, remember that there is always another way. We in housing have a duty to fight for it both to defend those who already live in social housing and those who will need it in the future.

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