The future of social housing – take aways from our recent roundtable

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, delivered the RSA’s annual lecture last week. A former Head of Policy at No 10, Taylor looked at the issue of ‘why policy fails and how it might succeed’. In it he examined the fate of major policy innovations across recent history; those that have stood the test of time (like the Minimum Wage, Scottish devolution and the smoking ban) and those that have withered (he cites the Child Trust fund, the poll tax and Child Support Agency). The thing that defines the successful ones, he argues, is simple: in their development they captured, and therefore reinforced, a broad level of public support:

 “There is a set of minimum success requirements for major social policy: yes it must be robust, but it also needs to align sufficiently with existing or emerging social values and offer the prospect of tangible gains that help people achieve their own goals in life”

This, he argues, creates an obvious but oft forgotten imperative for policy advocates to engage with the public and bring them along with them as far as is possible when they seek change. This is not just a good in itself, but ‘locks in’ change across generations rather than leaving it at the whim of changes in the political weather.

It was in that spirit that Shelter recently convened a roundtable on the future of social housing among social housing advocates. It drew in providers, such as Housing Associations and councils, as well as charities and interest groups who campaign on behalf of those on low incomes.

The starting point is that the objective need for some kind of low rent housing has rocketed – as more and more people are priced out of private renting, home ownership and even intermediate market products like Starter Homes or shared ownership.

But the same time politicians of all stripes have felt relatively free to either build little of it (Labour) or cut it away completely (see the Conservative government’s recent Housing and Planning Act), without any real outcry or pressure from voters.

Kate has discussed this problem on the blog before.

We wanted to explore this paradox a little more, and how it might have come about. At the roundtable we went over what research tells us about existing public attitudes to social housing, the implications of this on campaigning for social housing and the prospects for generating a new wave of public and political support for low rent homes.

In general we agreed:

  • The public think of social housing in different ways simultaneously. There is still very broad public support for the principle of social housing as necessary for the country and community, especially for vulnerable groups, along with a strong recognition of the heritage of council housing in particular. This is the public thinking with what you might call their ‘civic’ hat on. However, in many ways the flip side of this is that, with a ‘consumer’ hat on social housing is not really seen as an aspirational product, even among those on lower incomes. It is increasingly seen as only for those who are down and out on their luck, and among some groups of the public associated heavily with negative views of welfare recipients generally.
  • This sums to a general view of social housing as ‘necessary but for other people’. There are worse positions for a public policy to be in, for sure. But there was some agreement among the group that, with so much going on people’s lives, it is not the ideal one from which to build huge voter demand for more social housing in their area, and it makes it hard to generate huge mainstream public resistance to any cuts or changes to social housing – as we found during the Housing and Planning Act.
  • When discussing what might lay behind any negative public attitudes to social housing, there was a general feeling among the group that – despite occasionally unreasonable media coverage of social housing – this isn’t just a communications problem, but one related to social housing policy itself. In particular many people argued that focusing allocations very sharply on priority need had perhaps residualised social housing to only the very vulnerable. This may have contributed to the feeling among many on low incomes that social housing isn’t ‘for people like me’, and thus made it hard to generate the building of more as an issue of priority. This is of course a complicated area – and a tough message for Shelter to listen to, given our involvement with helping to shape key changes to allocations in the 1970s, but it is one that is worth exploring further.
  • One or two people that the strongest appeal of existing social housing is the route to home ownership it offers those on low incomes (both by allowing people to pay cheaper rents and save up, and through the Right to Buy), and advocates should make more of this.
  • There was also a view that it is worth exploring new products that do a similar job to social housing but are focused on low income groups who either can’t get or don’t want social housing. This might not replace traditional social rent but complement it in some way. The work of Conservative campaign group Renewal on Rent to Buy, which proposed a ‘Living Rent’ as part of the product, was talked about in this respect.

However, there were some areas where there was more difference. Questions such as:

  • Can the ‘brand’ of social housing be ‘rescued’ in popular public attitudes – or do we need to start again?
  • Contesting Taylor’s argument at the top of this blog somewhat, do public attitudes actually matter? Shouldn’t we just focus on the solid economic case for social housing?
  • Is the political tide turning with the new government, given recent noises by the new Housing Minister?

All in all this is certainly a complicated issue, with very few easy or obvious answers. Nevertheless we were struck by how widely the sense was shared that we definitely have a problem when it comes to building public and political support for low rent housing. The obvious challenge is what we do about it – something we are looking to work on in the coming year or so.

One Comment
  1. Providing social housing at fair, subsidised rent is a great deal more cost effective and sustainable than continually paying money into the hands of private landlords through ever increasing housing benefit.

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