Facing up to defeat: why was social housing an easy target?

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.

  1. The seeds of this problem are the very words that the government (an unfortunately some of (old) nu Labour) use about social housing and those on low incomes.

    ‘Sink estates’, ‘curtains closed all day’ ‘aspiration’ ‘the benefits party’ (Rachel Reeves for front bencher) ‘dead end jobs & need to get on the ‘jobs escalator’ (Rachel Reeves again). All these negative things about people who may live or wish to live in council/HA tenancies. It started with Thatcher and the sale of council homes, such that any one who did not ‘aspire’ to become a home owner was somehow a failure. And more recently Reeves ‘benefits party’ slogan as if Labour did not represent homeowners and ‘strivers’, and by implication those living in social housing were actually failing as citizens

    People were pleased and proud of their council homes kept their gardens in good order and those with sufficient space grew veg & fruit.

    Many of the former RTB properties are now buy to let at double or more rent than in the social sector being occupied by people who perhaps might reject the idea of social housing

    1. “Many of the former RTB properties are now buy to let at double or more rent than in the social sector”

      How can you compare the two rents?. Private landlords have to today’s prices for ex-council homes. Council houses were built in the 1960s for a few hundred pounds. We don’t have a level playing field. It is the ex-council tenant who gets the windfall and the opportunity to buy their social housing on the cheap and then sell it on the open market. They can sell that property to anyone, it does not stop Housing Associations buying these homes, but they don’t want to buy ex-council stock.

      The reason, they sold off these council is is a lot of them needed major repairs works, in some cases 60% of the cost of the value of the property. So it was not worth repairing and better off selling, but this made sense in 1980s, but in hindsight it was a mistake, as property values have exceeded repairs costs. Many council sent RTB owners bills of £25,000 to £50,000. No wonder, many chose to sell up.

  2. I’m sure everyone in Shelter is fully aware of the factors which have led to this widespread stigma attaching to council housing: poor maintenance, residualisation, propaganda victories for Thatcherist ideology and the state-supported house-price escalator which makes “ownership” so financially appealing that almost anyone would try to become an owner. It’s a classic case of that statement (whose?) that the secret of right-wind politics is to persuade the poor to vote against their own best interests.
    It is, of course, possible to have a housing system in which almost everyone is an ‘owner’ (even if often an indebted owner), as we see from most of Mediterranean Europe. To be viable it needs a plentiful supply of cheap land —not something the UK will see any time soon— and it’s much easier if the country is polycentric in contrast to the UK.
    Shelter should pay some attention to the land problem in Britain.

  3. Q) Why was (and is) social housing such an easy target?

    A) Because social (?) landlords allowed it to be!

    I am not dismissing the land issue or the overtly ideological attack on the social housing model by government or indeed the pejorative labelling of social housing itself – rather the fact that the claimed ‘social’ landlords failed to promote social housing in the way every other industry promotes its good and services.

    This is not limited to the recent Housing and Planning Act (HAPA) and the ‘sector’ has never promoted or defended the social housing model ever since the original Thatcherite RTB. Instead it has ALLOWED the social housing model to be perceived and labelled as the housing of last choice.

    The land issue, the acute shortage, and all other arguments against the social housing model are just symptoms of the larger root cause for me of landlords ALLOWING their industry to be so pejoratively labelled and perceived.

    The reality is that social housing has ALWAYS been an easy target and has been led by organisations who fail to see that it is a critical role of any business to promote its worth

  4. Great write up. With making parallels to stigma of social housing and the disabled community, there is no excuse for the poor attempts from the social housing sector in challenging both poor perceptions and poor policy.

    The disabled community while facing public and political stigma are still adept at challenging public perceptions and government policy. In part I believe that the social housing sector has an issue of internal stigma.

  5. Fantastic post. It’s a shame social housing is stigmatised, but it’s understandable given how these days it’s generally restricted to those most in need. It’s a strange irony that tenants on a low rent are more likely to be on full housing benefit, because of course it’s tenants who /aren’t/ on housing benefit that would directly benefit from a low rent.

    The housing sector does need to get better at promoting the image of social housing. We do a lot, like the Real London Lives project by the g15, but we evidently need to do more to win the hearts and minds of the public at large.

    We also need to get better at defending ourselves. Nat Fed are doing a great job of picking their battles and (often) winning them, but housing associations shouldn’t be afraid to publish reactions to government policy unilaterally. Yes, we need to avoid party-politics. Yes, we need to work with government, whatever its colour. But we also shouldn’t blow in the political winds when it comes to policies that affect us.

  6. Thanks Kate. Agreed many polls for some time now have shown in principle big public support for more “social housing” (see recent Guardian poll bit.ly/1NfOQTI and previous British Social Attitudes suveys). However when presented with a decision / tradeoff to make between bricks and mortar social rented housing and home ownership for first time buyers (and all the (mis)conceptions of the beneficiaries of both), it is understandable the majority side with the latter – and the law makers know it. We need to turn the argument away from the presentation of a zero sum game / false tradeoff to one where we can and need to do both – increase the supply of social rented and opportunities for homeownership. And we need to demonstrate / explain how increasing the supply of social housing – by increasing supply generally – helps to also ease affordability for first time buyers by putting downwards pressure on house price growth as well as housing those in greatest need. A “win / win” narrative rather than the “win / lose” one our lawmakers have been able to weave.

  7. “Policy by anecdote is a dangerous approach, but the evidence reinforces the sense that there is a problem with public perceptions of social housing. ”

    ASB is not a perception issues, but a reality…

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