Is this really the turning point for social housing?

In the week when the final death toll of the Grenfell Tower disaster was announced to be 71, it is right that social housing should move further into the spotlight. The Chartered Institute of Housing has announced a major new project aimed at shaping the future of the sector, called ‘Rethinking Social Housing’. It joins the government, which is holding its own review, and the Labour Party, which is close to confirming the details of the review announced by Jeremy Corbyn during his conference speech.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, also moved two steps forward this week with the appointment of three expert assessors – to join a huge team of lawyers and a team of fire experts – and by publishing an update on the Inquiry so far.

The progress report illustrates what a complex Inquiry this will be. It has had an unprecedented number of applications to be Core Participants in the Inquiry – 545 applications, of which 393 have already been granted – and has embarked on a review of the first 200,000 documents received. Detailed attention is being given to tracking the generation and movement of fire and smoke and taking witness statements from, amongst others, the 225 residents who escaped the fire and the 260 firefighters who attended. Phase 1 of the Inquiry will focus on the ‘factual narrative’ of what happened on 14 June. Meanwhile, the silent marches every 14th get bigger every month.

grenfell the sun Grenfell Silent March 14 Nov 2017. Pic: Barcroft media for the Sun.

Link to Justice for Grenfell campaign.

It is natural, given the track record since 2010, to be cynical about what the government is up to. Less than two years ago it seemed on course to eliminate social rented housing entirely from the new building programme and to pursue the rapid managed decline of the sector. The 2016 Housing and Planning Act was the nadir with the introduction of right to buy for housing associations paid for by the sale of ‘high value’ council houses.

Things are more confused now. Gavin Barwell, a Minister who plainly did not believe in his own government’s policies, has moved to the centre as Theresa May’s chief of staff, and new Minister Alok Sharma has won some plaudits for travelling the country post-Grenfell ‘listening to tenants’. Importantly, there is no sign of high value sales being implemented, warmer words are being spoken about social housing, Theresa May announced £2 billion for 25,000 ‘council houses’ in her conference speech (alongside £10 billion for ‘Help to Buy’), and the government has been rowing back (slowly) on some of its worst welfare reforms. The post-2020 rent increase settlement was warmly welcomed by the sector because it supported investment (although the tenants who will pay for it were rather less pleased).

Next week’s budget is the next significant milestone, with more details expected on funding for social housing (is it real extra money or another three- card trick?), issues like council borrowing capacity and retention of right to buy receipts, and welfare reform including Universal Credit. The mood music has definitely changed – as the ever-prescient Jules Birch notes in his pre-budget blog, “The clamouring is not just coming from the usual suspects but also from investment bankers, right-wing thinktanks and Conservative MPs.” As Jules concludes: ‘It’s hard to remember the run-up to a Budget with such raised expectations – or so much potential for them to be dashed.’

The Budget might not see much hard cash but it may see some funny financial fiddling to enable more to be spent on homes without the cost impacting on the government’s deficit. There has been a frisson of excitement because the Office for National Statistics seems willing to redefine housing association borrowing as ‘private’ not ‘public’. In practice the ONS decision to go the other way a couple of years ago seems to have had little effect, but it raises the possibility of more significant changes for the local authority sector, either by reclassifying public corporations outside the definition of public borrowing (because they are trading activities) or by new financial instruments that could take borrowing for new housing outside the definition of public borrowing. Nerdy, certainly; important, definitely – as we’ve pointed out on Red Brick before.

So we are entering an important phase for social housing: imminent are the budget, Sadiq Khan’s proposals for The London Plan, the myriad of reviews, and the Grenfell Inquiry. There will be a lot of technical detail flying about, but there will also be plenty of us determined to keep the debate focused on people, their safety and well-being, and meeting their housing needs. Time alone will tell if this really is the turning point.

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