Housing campaigners need to acknowledge the uncomfortable quandary about the passing of the Housing and Planning Act. As we pointed out last week, despite near unprecedented concern in the Lords, the government ultimately felt comfortable enough to stand firm with its vision for social housing. It is a notable show of resolve in a year that has seen U-turns on everything from tax credits through academies to the Human Rights Act.
I think an anecdote from the start of the fraught process helps explain why. I was on a local radio phone-in with a woman on the minimum wage who thought Starter Homes sounded “fantastic”. This was despite Shelter research showing that Starter Homes would be unaffordable for households on the new National Living Wage in 98 per cent of the country.
The radio presenter was quick to point out the gloomy maths: had she considered social housing instead?
Absolutely not. She wasn’t on benefits so social housing ‘wasn’t for someone like her’, she explained bluntly. Perhaps she secretly agreed with the previous caller, who backed the diversion of Section 106 funds into Starter Homes on the grounds that social tenants don’t mow the grass. (As someone who doesn’t even water my plants, I felt unqualified to comment on anyone’s gardening).
It was a revealing exchange and I thought of it again after the government’s refusal to meaningfully compromise. Here we were with a bill unashamedly directing funds away from low rent homes into discounted houses for higher earners. And yet a woman who would have benefited from a reduced rent was cheering a product she’s unlikely to be able to buy. No wonder Ministers felt so confident in their attacks on “unelected peers”.
Policy by anecdote is a dangerous approach, but the evidence reinforces the sense that there is a problem with public perceptions of social housing. And it’s a problem the sector needs to acknowledge if we are to understand why the government feels so empowered to abandon low cost, secure rented homes.
Recent research by the Fabians revealed that the public are supportive of more social housing in principle – but are less likely to feel that it’s relevant to their own housing needs. The majority of people instead see social housing as a social service for other people and do not see it as part of the broader problem of affordability. It becomes a social policy ‘nice to have’ rather than a tangible part of people’s own political scoresheet. Translated to parliamentary wrangling, this means the government are going to fear very little heat for having hastened the decline of social housing.
The Fabians report revealed real stigma attached to the idea of living in social housing. Just 28% of people said they would be happy if they or their family lived in social housing – including 36% of private renters. When asked what word they most associated with social housing half said “benefits”. Although visible poor quality in some developments was seen as part of the problem, stigma was most attached to social residents, not the buildings, and half of respondents thought people living in social housing were stigmatised. This stigma means that people are less quick to defend social housing’s beneficiaries from cuts than say, people with disabilities.
As the dust from the Housing and Planning Act settles the housing sector has to ask why ours was the hill the government was prepared to die on. Bluntly put, there was too little political pain attached to squeezing social housing when done in the name of promoting home ownership. It was a choice the public seemed eager to accept, despite the starkness of the long-term decline in mortgaged homeownership and rising house prices. Over the next few months we at Shelter will be asking ourselves why someone on a low wage assumed that social housing was not an attractive offer – or even one that could work for them. We won’t shy from the difficult questions, or difficult answers. It’s a debate we look forward to having on this blog and elsewhere.