Cover Story: New campaign to fight for social housing’s future

SHOUT at the devil

For too long social rented housing has been the tenure that dare not speak its name, but now a small group of housing professionals have broken ranks to challenge the silence – and demand it be rebuilt as an essential public asset

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, April/May 2014

A long time ago, at the Peckover Street conference in Bradford, a rallying cry was heard that heralded the birth of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – the antecedent of Ed Miliband’s party today – that set out to win political representation for working class people, and with it the reforms necessary to improve their lot in life: “It’s time we had a party that will.”

In a sense, the founding members of the Social Housing Under Threat (SHOUT) campaign have picked up that rallying cry, or at least its echo, but their aims are less overtly political and more tightly focused: they are looking for a party that will acknowledge social rented housing as a public good, and which will endeavour to save it as a public asset for current and future generations.

That may or may not be a tall order. In a more immediate sense, SHOUT answers a ‘call to arms’ issued last year in the Guardian newspaper (16 December 2013) by former Labour housing minister John Healey MP, who effectively challenged the sector to show some guts and fight for its future.

“If social housing’s own won’t stand up and speak out loudly, then present [government] policy will prevail by default,” he said. “Eighteen months out from the general election, we need to refresh and remake the case for public housing. That’s why I ... will continue to campaign in parliament. But politicians can only get you so far and it will be a wider swell of pressure from those who believe in the economic and social case for public housing that really matters. For those people and organisations, it’s time to stand up and be counted.”

SHOUT intends to count a great deal and make its collective voice heard – loud and proud. Although Labour is the primary target of its lobbying efforts, when it comes to finding the ‘party that will’, the colour of the rosette is neither here nor there.

“The main focus is going to be on the Labour Party because that’s where most of the potential for action is,” said Colin Wiles, a columnist and independent housing consultant, who is also one of the founding members. “But one of the things we’re aiming for is to go back to that kind of post-war consensus where both Conservative and Labour parties were almost competing with each other to build the most homes – and the most affordable homes – and that’s what we want to get back to. We are a cross-party campaign and we do want to appeal to all sensible people across the political spectrum.”

The ‘we’ at present consists of Wiles, along with Alison Inman, Tom Murtha, Kate Murray, Aileen Evans, Martin Wheatley, and a few others. Together they form the steering committee, which is currently putting the organisational structure in place. A formal launch is planned for next month, and in June SHOUT will be taking its message to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference and exhibition.

“It’s early days as yet but we did feel that it was urgent and that we needed to do something quickly,” Wiles added. “The view we all took is that social housing – or social rented housing, which is really the focus of the campaign – is a most precious resource that’s been built up over generations. Selling it off without replacing it is very short-sighted and it’s going to add to the numbers of homeless and also add to the housing benefit bill.”

The campaign may be in the embryonic stage, but with its submission to the Lyons Review, authored by Wheatley, it has clearly and succinctly placed its cards on the table.

The submission is pretty much a ready made manifesto for social housing (see below); one that is open for any party to pick up and run with. The core of it is the simple premise: to end the residualisation of the tenure.

“We don’t want social housing to become residualised, as in just housing the most needy and the poorest, because that’s part of the narrative that’s come up about social housing being a place for ‘losers’ and being stigmatised,” said Wiles.

The document claims that the Lyons Review’s stipulated target of 200,000 homes a year by 2020 cannot be achieved unless 100,000 are social rented homes. Moreover, so much else depends on increasing the supply, not least welfare reform and the efforts to drive down the housing benefits bill; making ‘social’ housing more expensive via Affordable Rent just doesn’t add up, as far as SHOUT is concerned.

“’Social housing’ must mean housing at rents comparable to traditional social housing rents. The ‘Affordable Rent’ tenure introduced under the current government is not in fact affordable for hard-working families, it cannot be financed sustainably by social landlords, and it is poor value-for-money for the taxpayer,” said the document.

“We can afford 100,000 new social units a year. Its cost is equivalent to just a few days of welfare spending. Even if the entire £4.5bn a year cost beyond current housing capital had to be found within spending totals, it could be accommodated. In fact, the net impact on public spending totals would be significantly reduced by savings on welfare, health and other programmes, and the provision of units by private developers through s106. It would be an investment which could carry on producing benefits to the taxpayer and society indefinitely.”

Where there’s a will there’s a way, and in its quest for the ‘party that will’ save social housing, SHOUT is laying bare the heart and soul of the Labour Party, given the echoes of its founding idealism; in another sense, however, it also invites the Conservatives to undertake some serious soul-searching. The Conservative Party, after all, has long prided itself on being the party of business, supportive of the entrepreneurial spirit, the stewards of sound economic management.

With its ‘manifesto’, SHOUT has effectively presented Conservative ministers with the opportunity to peruse a business proposal for investment in the essential infrastructure supporting the enterprise that is the United Kingdom; a chance to prove the mettle of their self-image as shrewd and rational managers of a modern economy.

But, of course, it’s not just about the economy; there’s the notion of the good society, too, one that strives to meet social need for all its citizens. Taken together, you’d think there’d be plenty there to unite both Conservative and Labour alike to a common cause.

Wiles added: “We think social housing is worth preserving because it has a good track record and it’s housed millions of people. Selling it off cheap without replacing it is going to cost the country in terms of added homelessness and housing benefit.

“A lot of properties that have been sold under Right To Buy are now being let privately at much higher rents and therefore the people in them on housing benefit are having to claim higher levels of housing benefit. We think that’s a mad situation when you could have retained those properties at lower rents. If people wanted to buy, they could have bought elsewhere.

“The whole thing is a false economy in our view. So that’s what we’re campaigning for: we think it’s worth preserving before it’s too late.”

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Demand and deliver

SHOUT’s submission to the Lyons Review sums up the campaign’s essential purpose. It has made a number of key demands, in what amounts to a line in the sand for social housing. Those key points call on any future Government to:
  • Provide grant funding at adequate levels to deliver social housing at a standard and scale that “makes a difference” to housing need. Doing so will control levels of debt and keep rents at affordable levels, while saving public expenditure over the long-term by bringing down the housing benefit bill
  • Remove or raise “significantly” the HRA borrowing caps to give councils real freedom to build new social housing
  • Government must set a target of surplus public land to be made available for social housing at low cost
  • Any new towns or garden cities must contain a “significant” amount of social housing
  • Social housing to be “properly regulated” so that “high quality management” can be encouraged and tenants involved to the degree of their choosing
  • To continue basing social housing rents on an affordability formula
  • To refrain from describing ‘Affordable Rent’ homes as social housing. To call it such is “misleading” and it “contradicts the Government’s own definition”
  • The Affordable Rent programme in its present format must be “wound down” and replaced with a programme to build social housing
  • Any future government must address land and supply issues to drive down the overall cost of housing provision
  • Social housing must be viewed as a “tenure of equal status” to others
  • The loss of social housing through Right to Buy, voluntary sales, and conversion to ‘Affordable Rent’ should be ended, unless there is a like for like replacement
  • End the “stigmatisation and demonisation” of social housing and the people who live within it
  • Registered providers should refuse to sign up to the ‘Affordable Rent’ programme in its present format
(Source: SHOUT submission to the Lyons Housing Review, February 2014)

First published as the cover story for the April/May 2014 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 30 May 2014

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