One of the things I’ve learnt in life is that it is important to learn from your mistakes. That’s why it was refreshing to see that the Labour Party’s review of social housing asked respondents to talk about the mistakes in housing policy which have helped to shape the sector’s current position and status.
In order to change our future we need to take stock of how we got here.
Over the recent decades we have seen a drastic decline in the proportion of social homes. Since 1976 social housing has dropped from a third of all homes to less than a fifth. A vast reduction in capital subsidy from Government, coupled with the lack of replacement of social homes under the Right to Buy, has meant that social housing is now a scarce entity.
Because social homes are now so scarce they have, quite rightly, had to be rationed to those in most need. Unfortunately, this contributes to social housing being seen as the tenure of last resort. The current image of social housing is now far away from the post-war image of homes for heroes. We have seen the reputation of social housing fall from an aspirational product to something that is often feared or pitied. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
A serious government commitment to fund more social housing coupled with the creativity the sector has developed could see the end of this needs-based rationing. While continuing to house those that need us most, this rejuvenation of the sector could also open up the social housing sector to much wider groups of people and mark a return to the original vision and role of social housing.
This is unlikely to be enough by itself. As social housing tenants have been telling Alok Sharma and Dominic Raab, the negative reputation of social housing runs deep. If the social housing sector is to truly rejuvenate then serious steps would need to be taken to improve the reputation of our homes and estates.
As well as taking steps to tackle the reputation of the social housing sector the Government could help by moving away from policies like the household benefit cap which can be seen to contribute to the negative image of social residents.
Not only do policies like this perpetuate society’s view of social housing tenants as ‘welfare scroungers’, they also undermine the security of Housing Benefit. A secure home is the platform from which people can re-build their life and fulfil their aspirations. Undermining Housing Benefit is counter-productive and will increase vulnerability.
It is vital that the government understand that subsidising the construction of low-rent social homes is undoubtedly a better option than subsidising individuals through the Housing Benefit Bill. To function better the social housing sector needs to be adequately invested in and respected for the positive social impact it provides.
Unless this happens the situation will not change.
At a time when housing affordability is so constrained, providing good quality subsidised affordable homes is more important than ever. If the Government want to ensure everybody has the opportunity to live in an affordable, safe and good quality home they need to learn from their mistakes and invest in social housing.
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