Matthew Warburton, Policy Advisor at the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH), discusses the need for a change in attitude to deliver social housing we can all be proud of.
As part of its response to the Grenfell House Tragedy the Government has promised a Green Paper on social housing, probably later this year. Announcing it in his speech to the National Housing Federation last September, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said it would be ‘the most substantial report of its kind for a generation’. He promised a ‘fundamental rethink’ of the sector, aiming to return social housing to the status it enjoyed in the 1950s, when, he said, it was ‘treasured’, ‘something we could be proud of whether we lived in it or not’.
In the 1950s, social housing meant council housing. The Government’s main objective was to build new homes to replace those lost or damaged in the War and, later, slums. It did not think private builders had the capacity to do the job, nor that millions of families could afford to buy. Housing associations were few. So councils were given the job of making sure enough homes were built. Quality was more important than affordability: council rents were usually higher than those charged in the rent-controlled private sector, but new council homes had bathrooms and indoor toilets, sometimes even central heating.
The new council homes were as good as much of what private developers were building for sale, and better than what most private landlords could provide. And most of them, particularly outside the inner cities, were houses with gardens. The public image of council housing was more often one of suburban or New Town cottage estates than of flatted blocks — tower blocks were yet to appear. Lettings were not targeted on the poorest but a much broader range of working households. A council tenancy was not a badge of poverty.
The scale of Savid Javid’s ambition is remarkable. His aspiration is one most people working in social housing would sign up to. Some would dismiss it as a rhetorical flourish likely never to be translated into government action; many more would worry that, given how much has changed in the past 60 years, it is, frankly, unachievable. But is it?
What is certain is that we cannot undo six decades of history. The social housing stock — more of it now owned by housing associations than councils — is ageing. Much of it was well-designed and well-built; most of it is in better repair than much housing in the private sector, although it is not widely seen as being so.
Public perceptions are dominated by the high-rise and system built mistakes of the 1960s, even though these are only a small percentage of the stock. But the most important change has been the loss of a third of the council stock since 1980 through Right to Buy, which has leached out the more prosperous tenants, leaving a sector now almost exclusively occupied by households on the lowest incomes. The 2011 census found that only half of social housing tenants were either in work (41%) or unemployed (8%); 28% were over 65 and the rest were either full-time carers or had a long-term sickness or disability.
This means that attitudes towards council housing, and social housing more widely, are closely bound up with attitudes towards poverty and poor people. People who see council tenants as shirkers, malingerers or benefit cheats are likely also to view council housing as an unfortunate social necessity rather than a social asset — something we can take pride in. If this government truly wants to change attitudes towards social housing, it needs also to renounce attitudes that almost exclusively blame poor people for their poverty and take action to make our society more equal.