The three weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire have left me sure that this is the most significant moment for UK Social Housing in my working life. Nothing before has posed such searching questions; nothing before has demanded such a total rethink of how this country treats its poorest citizens. The cover of last week’s Inside Housing Magazine starkly proclaims two words, “Never Again”, against a backdrop of the blackened husk of the building that has become emblazoned on all of our minds. Of course we need to redraft building regulations, and better organise the emergency response but to ensure those two words are a truth not merely a hope will mean changing far more.
Like many others I feel my own sense of guilt. I have worked in housing for more than 25 years. Ten of them in housing departments in London boroughs that adjoin Kensington and Chelsea. Much of what I did there I’m proud of; some of it I’m not. I worked in the final days of Shirley Porter’s Conservative regime at Westminster and for various Labour controlled councils. All of them with varying degrees of subtlety used social housing tenants as electoral fodder, moving them around under various excuses to aide their electoral prospects. All of them failed to invest properly in social housing tenants to ensure they were equal citizens in society. Over the years I’ve challenged some policies, but too meekly gone along with others.
Like many people of my generation I have benefitted from a crazy system of home ownership which has seen our family home increase in value nearly ten-fold. Through no merit or particular effort on my part I have a huge unfair advantage in the housing market over people who are not in the market or who joined it after I did. This isn’t just some middle class angst. It matters, because it means people like me who work in housing, whatever we like to think, aren’t as much a part of the solution as we’d like to be. We have not effectively challenged the system that has spawned the injustices that are now laid bare.
Decades of vilification of social housing by some politicians and some in the media have had a serious impact. The public has been taught and started to believe that social housing is there only for those that can’t help themselves; homes for freeloaders, the feeble and the feckless. Last year’s Housing and Planning Act confirmed this thought into legislation. Compulsory fixed term tenancies were introduced redefining social housing as a ‘safety net’ that should be used only by people in the direst of need.
For decades social housing has been starved of investment. Apart from a brief period at the beginning of this century (The Decent Homes Programme) social housing has had to pay for itself out of its own rental income. Social housing rent has been managed at national level under a system called the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). This pools all rent collected at a local level and redistributes it back to local authorities to fund management, maintenance and major improvements of the housing stock. There is currently no additional subsidy added by councils or government, indeed they have both systematically raided it to fund other priorities. Government rules have been introduced, first freezing, and later cutting social housing rents meaning that income into the HRA has shrunk. Some councils have deliberately underspent the account, creating huge surpluses. In Kensington and Chelsea the underspend for last year alone was £15 million.
Government subsidy has been allocated elsewhere encouraging housing associations to concentrate on types of housing other than social housing. Some have laudably decided to continue anyway, others are enthusiastically getting out of the social housing business as quickly as they can; offering instead shared ownership, affordable rent (a euphemistic term that means marginally discounted market rent) and introducing a system of right to buy, allowing social housing tenants to purchase their flats at discount taking them out of the social housing sector. A government scheme that aims to replace right to buy losses with new social housing has proved to be highly ineffective.
The UK housing sector of which I’m part of has collectively chosen to challenge little of this; instead it has focused its campaigning energy on arguing for more homes to be built. Not more social homes, or even affordable ones, but just arguing for an increase in the overall annual build rate. Whilst the call has been largely embraced by government and the housebuilding industry it can hardly be said to have had much success. It has however provided useful political cover for government and councils to reduce their demands for social housing provision in new housing developments. And in London and some other British cities it has allowed developers to build mega expensive flat developments aimed at foreign investors without having to even think about the consequences for affordability.
Every year it becomes more and more obvious that the market cannot provide safe and secure housing for everybody. Over the last ten years the average cost of a house in England and Wales increased by 259%, over the same period average earnings increased by 68%. Huge increases in house prices and market rent mean that in much of the UK people on average incomes cannot afford a decent home. There is a general consensus that to be affordable, housing costs should be no more than three times people’s income. In Kensington and Chelsea they are 38.5 times average income.
The consequences are a social housing sector that has stagnated, declined, and been unable to meet the needs of those that it’s supposed to address; and a home ownership sector that has locked out all but those with the highest incomes and those with inherited wealth. The increasing gap between them has been filled with a mixture of partial ownership schemes and private rent, which at its worst packs people into overcrowded houses in multiple occupation, and adds to the growing number of people who find themselves homeless. There needs to be action to change this on numerous fronts, but for me two principles stand out as fundamental.
Proper investment in social housing. The problems can’t be solved by letting it pay for itself. The country must commit to significant investment to improve and expand social housing. Social housing is national infrastructure like transport, energy and water. We need to treat it as such. To bring it up to scratch will cost the country money, but for me that’s part of the price of living in a civilised society.
The disparity of housing wealth has to be addressed. This will be no easy task and I recognise that causing a house price crash would have harmful economic and social consequences. That must be avoided. But national policy that always seeks to uphold house prices needs to be rethought. Instead the aim should be to slow house price growth (through taxation or other means) to below income growth until such time as the affordability gap has closed.
There are many more ideas being expressed by other people. World Habitat’s role is to encourage and develop new thinking in housing. I welcome the debate, but the response to this disaster needs to be big and bold. Anything less means we will have learned nothing, and the awful image of the burned out shell of Grenfell Tower will come back to haunt us again.