I have spent the Summer touring the country speaking in support of The SHOUT Campaign. Our call for more people to speak out for increased investment in social housing has received a mixed response, even though it is the only sustainable answer to the housing crisis. Some seem to understand the threat caused by the demise of social housing and some are indifferent to it. In some areas I have received overwhelming support and in some I have been criticised for looking back to a golden age that is lost forever. Some are willing to add their voices to the campaign and some say that we are sending out the wrong message and argue, incorrectly, that we can build sufficient homes to meet the growing need in other ways. The latest figures indicating the decline of social housing and the increasing numbers of so-called affordable homes should sound a wake up call to everyone involved in social housing. The governments long-term plan to replace social housing with a product that will eventually mirror market rent seems to be working. More worryingly many have already adopted the term affordable housing even though it isn’t for many of the people who need a home.
Most people, except the government of course, have already identified the disastrous effect of the bedroom tax. I believe that the introduction and almost total acceptance of the so-called affordable rent regime will eventually be a bigger disaster for UK housing and cause greater hardship. Housing associations are already introducing financial checks to ensure that future tenants can afford to pay the higher rents. This means that many of those who we would have housed in the past will be prevented from a obtaining a permanent tenancy in housing association homes. The latest figures showing a dramatic reduction in lettings to people from BME communities could be an early indication that this is already happening. Housing Associations were originally established to house those in the greatest need. As affordable rents become the norm our ability to do this will diminish. My question to the housing sector is who will house these people tomorrow if we do not defend and campaign for investment in social housing today?
Even where some are allocated homes because housing benefit currently meets the cost of higher rents there is a potential disaster waiting to happen. The government have indicated that they plan to reduce further social security payments. I have no doubt that they will use the increase in housing benefits, which is directly related to their own policies, as an excuse to make further cuts in this area as well. This could have an even greater impact than the bedroom tax. The outcome will be that more people will fall into debt and eventually lose their home. In future only those with a reliable income above the national average will be able to afford to live in so-called affordable housing. Is this the future for housing associations that, as poverty increases, we will no longer be willing or able to provide a home for some of the poorest in our society?
This trend, if not challenged, could change the face of housing associations completely. Only those providing specialist support or working in health or with older people will retain their charitable status. Many will be providing homes at market rents or for sale and will be indistinguishable from the private sector. Some will retain mission statements which talk about social values but all important decisions will be dominated by financial concerns. Once this happens those areas that are too risky and do not provide a commercial return will be abandoned. Groups of people will no longer be housed and communities ignored. Some that remember their original purpose might provide residual help to poor people and deprived communities but this will be no longer be core business. And the government will no longer fund any form of housing because, when there was still an opportunity to argue the case for investment in social housing, many in the sector said that it did not need it and the government took them at their word.
I expect some will disagree with this augury of what might be and I am pleased to say that in my travels I have met many who are willing to fight to prevent it happening. However I have also met some who are quite happy to go down this route. I detect a certain complacency in the Hothouse 33 vision that the housing sector can control its own destiny, be independent and continue to deliver its social purpose. I have even heard it said that market rent is the new affordable. I am sure this is what many building societies thought before they abandoned their roots and crashed into oblivion in 2007.
Some will have noticed that I have got this far without mentioning the debate about the use of the phrase social housing. I believe that the demonisation of the term and the people who live in social housing is all part of the governments plan to cut benefits and to destroy social housing. I recognise that some are genuinely uncomfortable with the term though they still support the concept. If this is true it is time for these people to stand up and prevent the demise of a tenure that reflects the true values of the housing sector. My granddad had a saying which originated in the 1st World War. “Many a man had his head blown off and never said a word”. It seems to me that the move to so-called affordable rents is another step in the decapitation of social housing which could have disastrous consequences for millions. Are we going to continue to accept it without saying a word?