During the long, hot summer of 1976 I travelled to Leicester for a job interview with John Perry. I can’t remember how it went except that I was fresh out of university and I knew nothing about the job in the housing department.
Obviously, I did not admit this at the interview and I presume I talked about how I was motivated by the two big housing influences on my life. The first was Cathy Come Home and the second was my experience of being homeless.
Surprisingly, John offered me a job in his renewal strategy team and a few weeks later I began working with local residents; to renew inner city neighbourhoods, improve homes that lacked many basic amenities, challenge slum landlords, and provide decent rented homes for those on low incomes. It was a dream job and I learned much in a short time. I will be forever grateful to John for giving me that opportunity.
Forty years later I have been reflecting on my career in housing. I wish I could say that the housing situation had improved.
Two recent headlines suggest we are going backwards. The first was a report from Shelter in The Observer that said “Housing crisis hits 1960s levels as tenants battle to cope” The details of the story that followed were so familiar and echoed what I witnessed when I watched the first screening of Cathy Come Home in 1966.
They were also depressingly similar to the housing conditions I had experienced daily in my first and subsequent jobs. The articles prompted a tweet, written in despair: “50 years on, this headline shames us all in UK housing that we allowed it to happen on our watch.”
Some might find this a harsh judgement and I don’t want to criticise those who work so hard in housing to improve the living conditions of many. But, I am afraid that the evidence shows that we have not done enough to make the case for those who suffer the most in the housing crisis. In recent years we have allowed the government to steal the housing agenda and vocabulary for their own ideologically-driven purpose. The second headline clearly shows this.
The prime minister said in the Sunday Times, “I’ve put the bulldozing of sink estates at the heart of turnaround Britain.” On the face of it his regeneration proposal seem reasonable. However, the language used and the proposed funding reveal its true purpose. The language echoes the demonisation of social housing and its tenants that was begun by Grant Shapps. The funding will only work if the majority of new homes built are for sale or market rent. More social rent housing will be lost to be replaced by more upmarket tenures. The losers will again be those on low, or no, incomes.
This is the sad story of the government’s housing policy since 2010. There is a clear purpose which runs from Shapps’s original demonisation campaign through to the Housing Bill. You won’t be surprised when I say it is the destruction of social housing. I am pleased to see that at last many other housing commentators are behinning to realise this
The process began with the “affordable housing programme”, which of course in many parts of the country is not. Public investment was slashed and new homes were partly financed by the conversion and sale of social rent homes. Incentives to sell council homes were increased. Now we have the Housing Bill with its many statutory and ‘voluntary’ proposals, all of which will further undermine social housing.
My first boss John Perry at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) estimates that there will be a net loss of 405,000 social rent homes by 2020. I am staggered that this number of lost homes does not create an outcry. Yet, too many in the housing sector have knowingly or by their silence allowed it to happen.
A recent article in Inside Housing argued, quite rightly, for the sector to do more about the threat to supported housing from the move to cap housing benefit and rent reductions. It highlighted the disastrous effects of the proposals on many elderly people and those with special needs.
The potential disaster that will certainly happen if we allow the destruction of social housing to continue will be far worse. We are already seeing its effects in the rise in homelessness and the numbers living in poor accommodation, and we say nothing.
I began working in housing to provide a decent rented home for those on low or no incomes. If I had wanted to devote my energies to selling homes to those who can afford to buy or providing homes that many can’t afford to rent, I would have become an estate agent or a property developer.
I know that there are many who work in social housing who feel the same. It is time that we made our voices heard for those in need who do not have another 40 years to wait.