Interview: Campbell Robb, Shelter

Shelter chief speaks

It’s good to talk, but as Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb tells Mark Cantrell, with the housing crisis tightening its cruel grip on people across Britain the country needs to see some action – and soon

From Housing magazine, February 2014

Campbell Robb
POLITICIANS have been making a lot of noise over matters housing of late, but it’s not enough to make pledges and fine speeches that end up forgotten in the archives of yesterday’s news – sooner or later words need to become deeds.

In Shelter’s view – and in this it’s hardly alone – action can’t come soon enough, but it’s taken as a positive sign at least that housing is moving up the political agenda; if the politicians are talking the talk, there’s scope to encourage them to take the walk. It’s a start, in other words.

“Political polling shows that [housing] is now tracking at fifth in the main issues that people think needs to be dealt with at the next General Election. In London, the single biggest unprompted issue is around the cost of housing, so what we are beginning to see, finally, is a whole range across the political spectrum and within the public that recognises this is not an issue we can put off any longer,” said Campbell Robb, the charity’s chief executive.

“The failure is of successive governments; not just this one, but the previous government, should have – could have – built more homes and should have done more about this earlier. Moving forward, I’m pleased that politicians are talking about it. All three main parties are talking about it in England, and in Scotland the SNP is talking about housing as well. They’re making pledges, they are making promises. What we need to see is that being turned into reality.”

Shelter, of course, operates at the sharp end of the failure to build sufficient homes, dealing with the human cost and fallout from the housing crisis. The Festive season is typically a busy time for the charity, as the pressures of Christmas and New Year mount, but it’s generally not until January that the cold harsh realities hit home. That’s when its helpline heats up.

“Generally, what we get is a lot of people who have scrambled and struggled to try and get through Christmas and then they face up to those January bills, so we are expecting to see a significant level of people seeking advice throughout January,” Robb said. And this after a year that’s already seen increasing demand for its assistance.

“The number of people who contacted our helpline in 2013 compared to 2012 about not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage went up by a third. That was in a single year. We’re beginning to see people hit by welfare reforms, losing money because of the spare room subsidy and those types of things,” he said.

Hectic though this time of year is, Shelter reckons it’s not as busy as it could be – or should be – because not everyone facing difficulty reaches out for help. Pride or shame – even denial – means that many of us can’t even confide in friends or family about problems meeting housing costs; paradoxically, perhaps, some have turned to risky payday lenders to help meet their rent or mortgage payments.

All told, Shelter’s research presents a grim snapshot of ever-more households facing a precarious housing situation. Naturally, that’s a worrying trend for the charity to contemplate.

“We are going through a very significant change in the way that people in Britain are now living,” said Robb. “Last year was the first time in nearly 40 years that there were more people living in the private rented sector than are living in the social housing sector. Ownership has been dropping for years now. Housing costs – rents and house prices – are on the rise, so what we are seeing for the vast majority of people is the cost of housing is a much more significant part of their income than it has been for a very long time. And when you combine that with transport costs going up, and inflation (just now stabilising), it is a depressing snapshot of a broken housing market.”

Shelter itself hasn’t escaped these difficult times unscathed either, but it has soldiered on. Hit by the cuts to the legal aid budget last year, it was forced to lose some frontline staff and close nine of its offices, but several housing associations stepped up to help. “We raised over £300,000 from housing associations, which was a fantastic response,” said Robb.

“We’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Shelter in a couple of years, and many of the housing associations were originally set up with grants from Shelter, so it was nice for them in our time of need to come back and support us.”

But the focus is on the future, working as a critical friend to the sector, raising awareness, campaigning and keeping the pressure up on those who hold the levers of power. So, as the politicians begin to talk up 2015, what’s Shelter’s ‘big ask’ to the party (or parties) that finds itself forming the next government? For Robb, it breaks down into three things.

“Fundamentally, at the heart of the problem we face is that we need to build more decent affordable homes across the country – genuinely affordable homes – that eases the pressure. So we need an extensive building programme from any of the political parties. That’s the first thing,” he said.

“The second thing we need is a commitment and understanding that some of the most vulnerable people in this country are beginning to fall through a housing safety net that has been severely changed and challenged by some of the welfare cuts. There are more people struggling, so we need to construct a really good comprehensive safety net because we shouldn’t have people falling through the net – we should be able to support them.

“The third thing we need is a genuine commitment to reform the private rented sector, because until we build all those houses we’re going to have a lot of people, in particular families with children, living in unstable, unsecure rented accommodation and we need to give them something that really makes a difference.”

Ultimately, however, these asks are all rooted in one firm foundation: “we need to build more homes”. And that takes action.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 1 April 2014

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