Shelter’s Big Conversation on the future of social housing

The Grenfell fire not only left an indelible mark on the community of North Kensington, but also sent shockwaves through the rest of the country. It’s notable that the fire quickly became viewed not just as a terrible, avoidable tragedy, but also indicative of broader concerns about inequality and poor housing.

The public debate after the fire quickly centred on the allegation that residents’ concerns had been ignored. This led to the suspicion that people living in social housing were at best too easy to side-line – and at worst, treated like second-class citizens. New polling for Shelter underscores this fear: social tenants with children are three times as likely as private renters to say they feel looked down on.

Even if people think this is unfair or misleading – as many within the housing profession will – the fact that this narrative rose so quickly to prominence should give them pause for concern. As too, should the finding in September that more than three-quarters of the population agree that the Grenfell fire has highlighted bigger problems in social housing.

A stark reminder

For us, this was sobering. We have long championed the need for more social housing to address the housing crisis – and meet the needs of those so poorly served by the expensive and insecure private rented sector. Our work on conditions has focused on private landlords, in part because that’s where the data tells us the problem is worst. But also, as one of my colleagues put it to me after the fire, we at least thought social tenants were safe.

We cannot brush aside the challenge some of the emerging narratives pose to our vision of more social housing. We also cannot overlook that we have been fighting an uphill battle for years, if not decades, when making the case for social housing.

The chronic decline of social housing and crisis brought by Grenfell have come together. We know that they require soul searching, but we’re also determined that they lead to something positive.

Shelter’s Big Conversation

That’s why today, we are launching Shelter’s Big Conversation on the future of social housing in England. This will address head on the complaint that social tenants haven’t been listened to. We’ll do this by providing lots of opportunity for tenants, as well as their neighbours and people on waiting lists, to share their thoughts and experiences – both good and bad.

And we want to ensure that their voices are heard in the loudest way possible. That means not just using our own brand and profile, but leveraging the weight of others. We’re asked 17 commissioners to join us in leading the Big Conversation. Our big-name commissioners will use their own profile to amplify the voices of tenants – while also using their independence and fresh thinking to challenge us where necessary.

The commissioners are independent of us, and will be able to ask whatever questions they like without fear or favour. We don’t know what they’re going to conclude, but we have committed to taking their independent report to the prime minister and party leaders. We hope that many of the conclusions will pave the way for our future campaigns for social housing.

We hope that that the Big Conversation will give people an opportunity to get their voices heard, and collectively identify how to make a bigger and better social housing sector.

Over the next few weeks, our commissioners will meet for the first time to finalise the scope of the project. We’ll be planning events across England for them to hear from people, and launching a consultation on our website so that everyone can get their views heard.