At the recent annual general meeting of the Labour Housing Group, addressed by Shadow Housing Minister John Healey MP, there was a general air of disbelief that housing policy could have become so perverted that the most extraordinarily damaging legislation – the Housing and Planning Act – could be passed into law. We have arrived at a position that even the most alarmist commentator would not have predicted as being possible in 2010. We have regressed so far in this Parliament that it is even possible to begin to feel nostalgic about the reign of Grant Shapps as Housing Minister.
Several people in the meeting praised the sterling opposition put up to the Bill during its passage, in particular by Lord Kerslake and others in the House of Lords. Some amendments were achieved, but the Government pushed the Bill through the Commons without serious fear of defeat, helped by the fact that it was England-only legislation. There was little sign of rebellion on the Tory benches. Yet in recent times the Government has faced defeat on a wide range of other policy issues and has backed down humiliatingly on a significant number of them. Why not housing? The point I made was that, if we want to make the case powerfully for a decent housing policy, we have to start by challenging ourselves: ‘why is the housing sector so weak?’ and ‘why is the progressive housing case so lacking in influence?’
Since then I have been impressed by two brilliant housing blogs that addressed similar and overlapping themes. In a sweeping and comprehensive restatement of the case for genuinely affordable housing, called The Theory of Everything, Colin Wiles wrote: ‘I have a unifying theory that the housing crisis underpins almost every social, political and economic problem of our time.’ He argued that the core solution – investment in social rented housing – is ‘staring us in the face’. Colin concluded that making the case for housing as the fundamental bedrock of a decent society ‘is the challenge for our sector. We have to make the case for change and if we don’t do it, who else will?’
On Shelter’s excellent housing blog, in a very perceptive post Kate Webb asked ‘why was housing such an easy target?’ and pointed out that, despite almost universal condemnation and several rounds of Lords’ defeats, ultimately the Government ‘felt comfortable enough to stand firm with its vision for social housing’ despite U turns on everything from tax credits to forced academisation to the Human Rights Act. We are all influenced by anecdotal evidence and Kate recounts a radio phone discussion in which ‘starter homes’ were seen as a fantastic idea (despite the maths) and social housing was seen as for people on benefits. ‘Bluntly put’, she writes, ‘there was too little political pain attached to squeezing social housing when done in the name of promoting home ownership.’
So why is the case for social housing so weak? I suspect there are a number of inter-linked reasons but if I was forced to sum up my view in one sentence, I would say that we have been losing the battle to control the political narrative around housing for 40 years. The winning side – private housing good, socialised housing bad – has had it mostly its own way and trying to understand this might lead us down a better path.
First I would mention the media. Some people think I am obsessed by media bias, and it has been a hobby horse of mine since I worked at Shelter in the 1980s. Then, there were a similar number of people with mortgages and people who paid rent. Yet changes in mortgage rates were always top item on the news and changes in rents rarely if ever got a mention. Peoples’ views are partly dependent on the information they receive; if that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have such a huge propaganda and advertising industry. Bias against ‘subsidised’ social housing and in favour of ‘stand on your own feet’ home ownership has been systematic and all-powerful. The confluence of interests between the bulk of the written media and the Conservatives has driven popular political discourse around housing. I am often told that I am ignoring the fact that people get most of their information from TV and radio and the internet these days, as if these were neutral, but as a big BBC fan it is obvious to me that their agenda is strongly driven by what appears in the predominantly right wing papers – and most influential people across the media identify mainly with home ownership, a little with private renting, and not at all with social renting.
Socialised housing pays for itself in the long run but building it needs capital subsidy up front. Social housing investment has been a major victim of the economic policies adopted by Governments since Healey and the IMF crisis in 1976 and the prevailing view that public spending is a drain on the economy. Behind the economics lies the politics: while direct public housing investment has been slashed, there have been waves of very expensive subsidies to homeownership in the form of tax reliefs, discounts on right to buy, and now direct subsidy for starter homes. Demand subsidies like these tend to reinforce prices. The truth is that private housing wealth accumulation makes a significant group of voters feel happier and more secure, even if it is ultimately at the expense of everyone else. Keeping house prices rising and offering more people the chance to jump on what seems to be a gravy train buys votes.
On the ‘progressive’ side we have undermined our own case for more social housing through self-inflicted wounds. It was probably just bad luck that the greatest period of investment in social housing, in the 1960s and 1970s, coincided with the worst period of design and construction, leaving a legacy that is not as bad as it is painted but is very challenging nonetheless – and easy to stereotype, even in the Guardian. Large parts of the sector have gone along with the wider attack on ‘welfare dependency’ and have failed to challenge the ‘scrounger’ narrative which the right has been so keen on. Social housing was frequently condemned as the enemy of aspiration. As a result, the door was opened for the monster Duncan Smith. It took a very long time to reform the paternalistic and bureaucratic mode of housing management (currently making a comeback sadly) and to appreciate that some of the things people liked most about home ownership – security, control, self-determination, mobility – could be replicated in social housing through progressive management models.
If the Conservatives have grabbed their opportunity for ideological purity with both hands, Labour’s approach has been unhelpfully ambivalent. Like trades unions, building council housing was not a ‘New Labour’ thing. Although vast improvements were carried out to the council housing stock under Blair and Brown, a genuinely great achievement, money was only available if you were willing to move away from the traditional council housing model. The role of building new affordable housing was given to housing associations, but on a much reduced scale despite their hubris. A hopelessly inadequate number of new affordable homes were built under Labour – until Brown’s Keynesian response to the financial collapse in 2008 – and in the event many of the biggest developing associations had lost sight of their mission to help the homeless and badly housed, becoming equally ambivalent about social renting and obsessed with home ownership and market-related solutions.
The housing lobby has also failed. It was once a progressive force, building a case based on an assessment of the housing needs of people on low and moderate incomes. There are still many brilliant people working in it, but in terms of raw influence it is a shadow of its former self. Some parts of it, especially the producer lobby the National Housing Federation, have been slowly migrating away from being one of us to becoming one of them. Their well-funded big effort before the 2015 election, Homes for Britain, couldn’t bring itself to make the case for social renting rather than vaguer notions of ‘affordability’. In its 50th year, and despite a lot of good work, Shelter’s impact now seems very modest. New campaign groups have emerged, often with a burst of publicity, like Generation Rent and a plethora of local groups, but at a national level few voices argue unambiguously for social rented housing. By and large the voices of consumers – by that I mean both existing social tenants and people in housing need who want to be social tenants – are totally unheard.
To get to the point where no Government would dare bring in an Act like this one we will have to climb several mountains. We will have to challenge prejudice and demonization, we will have to contradict the view that all public borrowing and spending is non-productive, we will have to contest the view that housing policy can be reduced to promoting a single tenure. We must stop being embarrassed by council housing and other social renting in the face of grotesque stereotyping. Even if we manage to build more homes in the future, we must shed the ambivalence: because we know that the needs of the homeless and badly housed will only be met by a return to the provision of social rented housing on a large scale.