In my final years as a housing association chief executive I became increasingly concerned at the attacks on social housing by the Conservative led Coalition. I was the first chief executive to speak out against Grant Shapps’s demonization of social housing and its tenants. So it should not have come as a surprise to the sector that I began to devote most of my early retirement years to campaigning for social housing.
At the beginning I felt like a lone voice, until I discovered like-minded people on social media and became a founder member of SHOUT, the campaign for social housing. At the time we were heavily criticised by many leading housing figures. I have been challenged about my views on many occasions when I suggested that we were witnessing the slow death of social housing and that housing associations were moving away from their social purpose and values. I have been called a “grant junkie” for arguing that the only way to solve the housing crisis is by public investment in social rent homes. I have been called a dinosaur for my views and much worse. I have been attacked for being a dissenting voice as many in the housing sector tried to ingratiate themselves with the government. Even if this meant turning their backs on social housing and its tenants.
It is worth remembering that many in the sector stopped using the term social housing, as if they were embarrassed by it. I compared this to the famous jeweller Ratner. Our trade body stopped using it, saying it was unhelpful. Any mention of social housing was removed from our national conference. Even the title was changed to remove the phrase. It was a difficult time for those of us who believed in social housing and its tenants.
Many in the sector were gripped by a Panglossian optimism driven by apparent business success, as thousands more became homeless and poverty increased. It was argued that building any tenure in a time of housing shortage fulfilled social purpose. Housing leaders claimed that the move to be more commercial was motivated by “profit for purpose”. Yet last year we built the lowest number of social rented homes, or their equivalent, in my 40 year career.
Despite the opposition SHOUT and others continued to campaign for investment in social housing. We realised that the move to commercialise housing associations and calls for their deregulation would not solve the housing crisis. More importantly we realised that these moves would further distance housing associations from those they were set up to help. Recent evidence supports this, as more on low incomes are excluded from housing association homes because of unaffordable rents and benefit cuts. SHOUT produced research that showed that investment in social rent homes would save the government £billions by reducing benefit payments and providing a home and a springboard for the poorest in our society. Sadly this was ignored by the government and some sector leaders.
Gradually, this changed, as some began to realise that the government had gone too far with its austerity programme. They saw that the demise of social housing was posing a real threat to society by creating more poverty and inequality. They began to call for government investment in social rent homes and the reversal of the draconian benefit cuts and caps. Strangely the national trade body did not join this call and still failed to mention social housing in most of its literature.
I’m glad to say that in recent weeks this change has accelerated. All of the recent General Election Manifestos mentioned social housing and the need to invest in it. The CIH especially has argued strongly for investment and has openly promoted the need for more real social housing. A recent report by Homes for the North proves, not surprisingly, that social rented homes make up the majority of future so-called affordable housing need. A fellow SHOUT member, Tony Stacey, has written about the sector bending itself out of shape as the political mood music changes and of the need to re-evaluate our social purpose and values. Tragically it has taken a horrific disaster to remind us all of the importance of social housing and the consequences of neglecting it and demonising its tenants. Even a Conservative Prime Minister has said that she “would stand up for social tenants”
We have come a long way from those dark days when the government openly attacked social housing and its tenants. An attack that was met at best with silence from many housing leaders and at worse tacit agreement. Maybe it is too early to talk about the rebirth of social housing. We need real action and proper investment before we can say that. But for the first time in a long time I feel that I am not swimming against the tide, but with it. I will resist the temptation to say that it is good to see that others have caught up and finally discovered that we need social housing.
I have always believed that it is an essential part of a fair society. For me, it is one of the pillars of the welfare state and it requires state investment to ensure that it continues to meet the growing need. That is why I have continued to campaign for it when many were critical. Like another ageing campaigner, I look forward to a few apologies from the people who criticised those of us who kept the social housing flame burning during those dark days. But I won’t be holding my breath. I am just grateful that social housing is back on the agenda. For the sake of the many who need it more than ever, we all must ensure that it stays there.