The green paper is an opportunity for us all to rethink social housing

At the Federation’s annual conference last September, then Secretary of State for Housing, Sajid Javid, announced a green paper which would explore (I paraphrase) the lived experience of people in social housing and the role of social housing in the future. Coming in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, it would be, he said, a generation-defining piece of work.

David Orr

By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation

24 July 2018

­In preparation for this, then Housing Minister Alok Sharma arranged a series of consultation meetings with tenants around the country. This was a hugely impressive attempt by the Government to move beyond the slogans and noise and really talk to people.

By all accounts, the meetings were open, honest and illuminating. There were some very consistent messages. In the main, people liked the quality of their homes. They expressed concern that there was a real shortage of genuinely affordable homes. They believed that some of the recent welfare reforms had caused real hardship. Many believed that the quality of service from their landlord could be significantly improved. A consistent theme was that people did not feel listened to and felt they were unable to influence the service they received.

Overall, though, the most consistent message was how angry people were at the extent to which social housing – and the people who live there – are stigmatised.

There are challenges here for us all. These are valid criticisms that have to be owned by landlords, the Government, the media and others. It’s not enough to see the things that others have done wrong. We need to put our hands up about the things that we can do better.

On the supply of new affordable homes, the whole nation has a real challenge to answer. Until very recently, our society has collectively said that we don’t care if we have a good and secure housing offer for those on low incomes or in need of support. For decades, there has been too little public investment and too little public concern. As a consequence, more by default than by design, social housing has moved from being a core and normal tenure to being residual, welfare housing. Housing associations have done what they can in the absence of government funding, building social homes off their own backs when others could not, but it is only in the last year that real public investment into social housing has returned. We must make this most of this – and make sure it continues.

The stigma people describe is real. Day after day, some of the nation’s press relentlessly accuse all recipients of benefits of being scroungers or cheats. Television series like Benefit Street demonize poor people. Why? Partly because making cuts is easier if we blame people for their poverty. Many of the benefit cuts – the benefit cap, the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap, the bedroom tax – which tenants felt had caused such hardship were made possible by this public and political discourse. The nation believed that the benefit claimants are cheating or scrounging and should not be helped.

Parliamentarians have too often been complicit in this narrative – and are directly responsible for the resulting cuts. The Government must now respond to this and commission a wide-ranging and serious study of the impact of welfare changes. Our politicians cannot assert that they are serious about changing the offer for poorer people unless they are prepared to explore their own role in the society we have created.

And what of the landlords? The challenge that some services are not up to scratch and that tenants do not feel listened to, do not feel in control? These are challenges that we must understand, explore and address. Some of the criticism flying around is extreme, accusing housing associations and councils of ignoring their residents, disregarding their views, even being contemptuous of them. Housing associations in particular are accused of prioritizing development over people.

These accusations are harsh and unfair: I have never, throughout my long career, encountered a housing association that doesn’t exist to serve the people who live in its homes and communities. Yes, we build – of course we must build, to tackle the housing crisis that has led to a shortfall of 4m homes. But this does not change the fact that high quality service delivery is, and will always be, at the very heart of what we do.

But the core contention that basic services could often be a good deal better than they are, and that the voices of tenants could and should be better heard and respected, has a ring of truth. We have to be more responsive, more accountable to residents, more modern in our approach, perhaps less paternalistic. That’s why we’re working with tenant groups to develop a new commitment to transparency and why we’re supporting the call for a national social housing tenant organisation.

Above all, the green paper gives us all an opportunity to rethink. What is social housing for? How much do we need in the future? Does the term itself encourage discrimination and low public esteem? How do we ensure our residents really are listened to? What should every tenant be entitled to expect?

We have to take this very seriously. At the heart there is a critical question about treating everyone with respect. And for us as a nation, fighting to find an identity among the anger and dispute about Brexit, surely providing a decent, warm, affordable home for all is essential. We must use this moment to start the long journey to delivering exactly that.

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