Housing: weak

There are plenty of times to talk about housing. Some of my friends and close relatives wished I talked about it less, especially when I am holiday. Yet here we are. I’m typing this on a sofa in our holiday cottage, hoping that the bairn stays asleep for long enough for me to finish it.

I didn’t choose for the social housing green paper to be published when many people are on leave or looking after children. I would have been much happier if they had published in the spring, as previously indicated, or even before the summer recess as latterly promised. I even prepared mentally for the last couple of days before the summer recess/ school holidays (Ms Lattepapa being a teacher) to bash out a reply. But here we are.

You might have to ask yourself why government waited until the quietest time of year to publish the paper. We certainly did, although all the changes of Secretary of State and Housing Minister made it possible that different sets of approval were being sought and ministers brought up to speed. It was also possible that they were fighting to get changes from the Treasury, something I have already talking about being occasionally difficult. But the more cynical thought perhaps it would be a disappointing document, particularly compared to the Labour green paper, which I have previously written about. And so it is here and you most likely agree it is a disappointment.

I know I’m late to this and that most people have already published their accounts, so I’m going to assume most people know the key measures announced and talk through what I think this means.

The paper was promised following the fire at Grenfell Tower and that social housing tenants lost their lives through what seems like avoidable causes. Of course separate proceedings are taking place to this paper to look into the causes of the fire and we are yet to see whether any criminal proceedings will follow. A key message the government told us they had heard was that social housing tenants needed to be treated with dignity and more respect. It was supposed to look at this and whatever it achieves or does not achieve should be measured against this.

But this focus on the dignity for current social housing tenants shouldn’t become placed at odds with the need for more social housing. To create dignity for social housing tenants you need to create more social housing tenants and make it something people can have for life. I’ll put that another way, for decades politicians and society at large have given explicit social cues and financial support for social housing tenants to buy their properties when they had a moderate income. Living in social housing has gone from something different groups of people may expect to do for their entire life to something that must be escaped from at the earliest possible point. At the same time, the lack of determined building of social housing means the overall number has reduced. Only the most needy are allocated homes and they stay in them; either until their circumstances change dramatically and they can buy them, or forever. The ‘forever’ group are seen as the most lamentable, with society seeing permanent accommodation in social housing (and certainly on an estate populated by people predominantly living in social housing) as either failures or failed by society.

So when we talk about dignity we also need to talk about the dignity of social housing tenants as a community- with shared life experiences and an ability to move through life and still be connected. Which is why tinkering with right to buy to, at best, replace homes 1 for 1 is about dignity. If you see homes around you being bought up and you cannot afford to do the same you will feel marginalised and like a failure. Your community will crumble before your eyes- you will see yourself as society sees you- someone who cannot get on.

Which is why using the fact that many people in social housing would like to be owner occupiers as a reason to continue sales of council homes is bottom-backwards. Governments help make society and they have certainly made property owning democracy. If they are serious about treating social housing tenants with dignity then they need to be thinking about how to stop reducing the number of real social housing units, whether through right to buy, linguistic wheezes like the definition of “affordable” homes or through large scale regeneration of existing estates that is predicated on the bottom line rather than the number of social housing units that be made. Make social housing something people want to live in for the rest of their lives and are able to live in for the rest of their lives. Yes that is about design and customer relations, but it is also supply and policies designed not to move people out quickly.

Conversely, the need to prevent social housing from being a temporary and unsavoury experience is why the u-turns on both fixed tenancy length (be a social housing tenant until your circumstances have improved) and high value homes (being a social housing tenant means living in a cheap house in a cheap area) are good things. But here we hit the next point the most positive changes in the paper are reversing policies legislated for or implemented since 2010.

This is true for the two changes above, having a monitor for social housing (hooray for the return of the Tenant Services Authority or similar) and even having a national focus on tenant empowerment (doubly hooray for the return of the National Tenant Voice or similar!). Even more so getting rid of the terrible “democratic filter” designed to turn MPs and Councillors into some sort of notary public for housing complaints. So what we really have is a set of u-turns and walking away from policies that have been on the statute books but unimplemented for a few years. All that is good, but not the same as actually doing anything new and positive. In a way it is a return to the Major-Blair-Brown consensus: talk positively about social housing but do very little to create new supply. Plus bunting. You’ve got to have bunting if you want to be the best neighbourhood.

At its most techy this is exemplified by the already announced measure of councils being able to increase rents by CPI+1%. This is better than the rent cuts that had been forced on the sector, but still means there will be significant rental diversity out there between different areas, often based on how much they frontloaded rental convergence when that was still a thing.

Whilst we are on payments to landlords, the intensely milquetoast section on universal credit, a whole 2 paragraphs of telling us what they’ve already done, doesn’t begin to explain why people are worried about this benefit. Tenants are worried because managing a low and changing income is intensely difficult, particularly if you have any deductions or work hours that change. Landlords are worried because all of this means tenants may struggle to pay their rent and they’ll have to run around trying to either help them through a tough spot or make arrangements to repay.

I’ll put that another way, if social landlords need to assume that each and every working age tenant will, at one time or another, be 8 weeks in arrears (the amount usually needed to set-up direct payments) then it will have to amass large revenue reserves. This means putting less money into capital spending and, therefore, making fewer non-urgent repairs, not looking after communal areas so well, choosing not to put their own money into building and so forth.

Funding community housing is positive, but the question must always be about where the money is coming from. If it is cash that would have been spent on social housing then this is a much harder decision. Similarly, worrying about the organisational capacity of some tenant management organisations (Kensington and Chelsea TMO was the landlord of Grenfell) but simultaneously mulling giving more power to collective community or resident-led groups has an air of circularity to it. Rather than focus on a patchwork of small landlords with an occasional community focus I’d rather time is spent improving the organisational capacity of larger landlords, including in community building. This probably won’t be a popular view, but if it is about using scarce resources then it is my preference.

Making grant funding partly dependent on tenant satisfaction is a sensible bit of tinkering. But it is only that. There’s no new money or ataboys for the sector as a whole increasing satisfaction, just a slightly bigger piece of the pie for those who, all other things being equal, can do it better. And slightly smaller bit of the pie who don’t.

Finally, I don’t think the government have thought through the proposal to buy your house 1% at a time. Making lots of people very small shared owners is full of dangers in the current shared ownership system. Will people be liable for repairs if they own 1%? Will they have liabilities for water running under their house? Some wags have already worked out that owners of 1% would not be liable for the bedroom tax- surely that’s been considered somewhere? Shared ownership doesn’t work for everybody- under the current rules I would be very cautious about advising anyone to do it (my advice would be to seek more expert advice!). Trying to pretend it is right to buy via hire purchase is simply worrying.

There is plenty more little changes (or, actually, proposals in the consultation) in there; these are just the ones I think are worth pulling out and expanding in more detail. But they are mostly little changes. Most social housing tenants won’t have heard about this green paper and I doubt any of them will ever really feel any benefit from it. It’s a return to situation normal after 8 years of utter nonsense being thrown at them. That’s good, but it isn’t good enough.

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