Three months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Savid Javid, then Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, announced a Housing Green Paper. After it had rejected the many calls for the state of social housing to be considered as part of the public enquiry, the government had, politically, little choice.
Capturing the central problems exposed by the fire Javid, identified three key areas that the green paper would look at: quality and safety, the way tenants are listened to and their concerns acted on, and the number of social homes being built. He promised “root and branch reform”, and claimed the housing green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.
The shock of Grenfell, combined with growing calls from Tories in local government for reversals of a number of past Conservative government policies, led the optimists among us to hope that the green paper might demonstrate that vital lessons had indeed been learned from the tragedy. A decisive attempt to solve one of the most challenging issues facing vast swathes of the population would have also granted a weak and unpopular prime minister some much needed political capital.
But those opportunities have not been taken – and the long awaited green paper has left many feeling distinctly underwhelmed. Although it is a consultation document, intended to spark further discussions toward more concrete proposals, the somewhat messy direction the document sets can lead neither to the step change in social housing that we were initially promised, nor do much to deliver many of its purported objectives.
The paper shows the government has read the public mood on housing: there is no more capacity to tolerate the type of extreme and unpopular policy measures pushed through during the Cameron years. The document announces that councils will no longer be forced to sell off their high value homes; nor must they replace current lifetime secure tenancies with fixed term ones that last just a few years. (Both of these policies were requirements of the 2016 Housing and Planning Act.)
It also begins a process of strengthening regulation of the sector. By contrast, Cameron’s “bonfire of regulations” did away with the previous regulatory agencies, the Audit Commission and the Tenant Services Authority.
Such policy reversals are welcome – but they do not begin to touch the sides of the damage caused by the deliberately targeted decimation of social housing carried out over the past four decades. There are no reversals of the changes to Housing Association finance that allowed unaffordable ‘affordable’ rents to replace social level ones, for instance; nor to the hated ‘bedroom tax’, which has driven so many social housing tenants into debt and desperation.
The green paper’s attention to responsiveness and accountability does nod to some of the problems exposed by Grenfell. The paper sets out much needed moves towards improving tenant voice and empowerment, such as league tables for housing providers, a more effective complaints system, and a stronger regulator. These would be welcome – if they prove to be effective.
Unfortunately those measures are undermined by the papers proposals for housing supply.
Despite the fact that adequate provision of social housing has positive knock on effects for the affordability of privately rented and owned homes; that, contrary to popular imagination, council housing is not subsidised but instead more than covers the cost of the initial investment through rents; or that it was only during periods of local authority building that adequate numbers of homes across the sectors were provided to meet the nation’s housing needs – despite all that, the government is simply unable to acknowledge such wide ranging benefits of publicly provided housing.
And there’s the rub in this green paper: the Conservative party is fundamentally opposed to state provision of public services. It cannot tolerate the idea of social housing as a secure long term housing solution for large sections of the population as of value in itself.
Even in its most generous, one-nation manifestations, the Conservative Party has seen public housing as suitable only for the poorest. Its more rabid neo-liberal free-marketeers have never hidden their disdain both for social housing and its residents. And so for them social housing can at best only be a safety net of last resort – or a springboard to home ownership.
Of course, this was not a time for government to further remove the state from involvement in housing provision. But the opposition to state provision, and obsession with home ownership, are clearly visible in the green paper – and they counteract its attempts to empower social housing residents.
Recently some councils have innovated to form new council owned housing companies that have enabled them to build a small number of homes at social rent levels: while these couldn’t offer tenants the most secure local authority tenancies, they were at least protected from right to buy.
But the housing green paper proposes extending right to buy to these homes. Its other proposals include transferring local authority housing stock to community-based bodies, and introducing shared ownership to local authority homes, with a stake as small as just 1 per cent on offer for tenants. These measures all build on previous neo-liberal successes in the dismantling of public housing provision.
The root of the issue here is that Right to Buy has had truly devastating consequences that have never been reversed.
Last year Housing Associations and Local Authorities sold 23,000 genuinely affordable social rent level homes through right to buy – more than four times the number of social rent homes that were built in that same year. Over 150,000 social homes have been lost since 2012 through right to buy, demolitions, and transferal from social to ‘affordable’ rents.
The numbers of council homes lost through the right to buy scheme since its launch in 1980 are simply staggering. In Islington alone, 12,000 homes have been sold, in Bristol 18,500, and in Manchester just under 21,000: the wider Greater Manchester region has lost 84,000 homes through the policy. In total, 2m homes have been lost through this policy in England.
Local Authorities were not allowed to keep the money from sales – though to give it some credit the document does hint that this may change. And, crucially, councils have been prevented from borrowing against the value of their existing housing stock in order to build new homes.
One area of consensus across left and right in local government is the need to lift of the borrowing cap that prevents councils building desperately needed homes. The green paper restates last year’s announcement of a one-off £880m fund, that some council’s will be allowed to bid to borrow from over the next four years. But even the Conservative leader of the Local Government Commission has said that this is nowhere near enough.
Social housing once housed 42 per cent of the population, across a range of social classes and at rents truly affordable to the masses. But the sector has been deliberately undermined and starved of resources, to a point of such dire shortage that social housing can now be allocated only to the luckiest of those in the most extreme hardship. While that continues, social housing and its residents will continue to be marred by the stigma attached to them by successive neo-liberal governments – and the voices of residents will never be respected.
And that’s where we are, more than a year on from the worst domestic fire since the Second World War, in which 72 people were killed and a whole community left devastated, with hundreds of those affected by the fire still languishing in temporary accommodation. There is nothing in this green paper which will have any significant positive impact on the supply of social rent homes.
With the minimum acknowledgement of the current dire situation in housing provision possible, Theresa May has given us a weak, confused, and contradictory policy platform. Once again, she has shown that she has neither the vision nor passion of Benjamin Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher.
Pilgrim Tucker is a community organiser and campaigner. She tweets as @PilgrimTucker.
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