Don’t Mention Social Housing

By Tom Murtha - on 21/07/2014

HACT's Chairman Tom Murtha discusses his reasons for involvement in the SHOUT (Social Housing Under Threat) campaign.

When I retired from full time work 2 years ago. I told everyone that I planned to go quietly and not hang around at Conferences like a bad smell. I have seen too many in the housing sector do this. One of the saddest sights I ever saw was in the Palace of Westminster late one evening when I encountered Harold Wilson wondering around like a lost soul.

So why am I here today? The answer is simple. I became angry. I became angry at the demonization of the poor especially those that live in social housing. I became angry at the demolition of the welfare state which had provided my home my health and my education. And I became angry at what I have described as the slow death of social housing and the lack of response from our leaders to speak out on its behalf.

This strange silence concerned me. But what really inflamed me was the way in which some seem to rejoice in its demise and even encourage it. Social housing was called a failed brand by some who appeared to be ashamed of what is still our main product. In fact the provocative title for todays debate “don’t mention social housing” seems to perpetuate this message.

We have accepted the myth too easily that social housing is for losers. If this was true we have millions of losers living in our homes. We seem to have become like Ratner the Jeweller who famously said his product was rubbish. This destroyed his business. Don’t let this attitude prevail and destroy ours.

I totally reject this premise. Social housing provides the best quality, best managed and only truly affordable rented homes in the country. We should be celebrating this and shouting it out from our rooftops. Not hiding it away beneath vanilla slogans that mean nothing and therefore are designed to appeal to all. Our tenants recognise this. Why don’t we?

Some of you will know that I have discovered social media. It is a great place to meetnew people and share views. One I have met uses the name @Simplicity. He is a housing association tenant and he wrote a wonderful blog recently in which he said, “I still haven’t seen a cogent rationale for why all housing associations aren’t supporting the SHOUT campaign.” He reminded us that, “ultimately we’ll be the people funding the future of housing associations through our rents. Sure, some of you will build houses for market sale using money that could have helped address the homelessness crisis. Some of you will be charging rents set at a level where the state will have to pay because tenants will never find them affordable, but in the long term, your businesses are about tenants, and the best thing you can do for us is keep our rents as low as possible.” I could not have put it better.

This is why I am proud to be a founder member of SHOUT which stands for Social Housing Under Threat

The SHOUT campaign has been criticised for being one dimensional. It is not. It recognises other tenures as part of the solution. But its underlying message it that you can’t solve the housing crisis without significant public investment in social housing.

The SHOUT campaign has been criticised for diluting a clear message. When in fact it has the clearest of all messages. Build 100,000 homes a year. All the other messages I have read, and there are many, are apple pie and motherhood. They appear to have been written in response to opinion pollsters and focus groups who have nothing to do with social housing. How can you have a campaign which appears to be too frightened or too embarrassed to mention 90% of what we do?

And finally the SHOUT campaign has been criticised for being backward looking. Well if we are I am pleased to see that the Lyons Review are also living in the past in seeking a revival of the building programmes of the 1960s as well. We appear to be in good company. My own view is that the sector is in danger of ignoring the past at its peril. The best leaders spend some time in the past, the present and the future.

Our Job as stewards is to protect and promote social housing both for those who will need it today and tomorrow. It is under threat from from all sides.

It is time for the sector as a whole to stand up speak out and defend it.

The millions of tenants who pay for what we do including our wages have a right to expect you to make it a priority and SHOUT out for social housing.

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