When it was announced by housing secretary Sajid Javid back in September, the social housing green paper was described as the start of a “fundamental rethink of social housing in this country”. Now that it is finally published after several postponements, the strong impression on a first read is that there has been little thinking and certainly nothing fundamental going on in government over the past 11 months.
Three things in particular strike me from this first reading.
First, the top news is that it signals the abandonment of much of the ‘Cameron Housing Policy’ imposed since 2010 and enshrined in the 2016 Housing and Planning Act. If it was an honest document it would say ‘we got it wrong’ when the Coalition dismantled the social housing regulatory system when taking office in 2010. Now indicated are a return to proper regulation of consumer standards, proper tenant involvement, a clearer framework for dealing with complaints, more of a level playing field between council and housing association landlords, and a return to a ‘tenant voice’ type organisation.
In his introduction the new housing secretary James Brokenshire almost confirms the point: “There is a powerful case for strengthening the Regulator so it not only focuses on the governance and financial viability of housing providers, but also on how residents are treated and the level of services they should expect.” Well, that is pretty much what the Tenant Services Authority and the Audit Commission were doing in 2010 before they were abolished. The idea that is floated of linking funding to performance also takes us back into new Labour territory.
Second, the government has said a lot about the stigmatisation of tenants since the Grenfell fire. And it says it again here. But there is a contradiction at the heart of their thinking. They cannot really understand why anyone would want to be a tenant and so there are proposals for yet more routes into home ownership. One section is headed “Ensuring social housing is a springboard to homeownership”, enshrining the notion that the most important thing is to aspire to home ownership.
The attitude that people who rent are inferior to people who buy is at the heart of stigma. So the Prime Minister, in her introduction, is wrong to try to pin the blame on landlords: “Many people living in England’s four million social homes feel ignored and stigmatised, too often treated with a lack of respect by landlords who appear remote, unaccountable and uninterested in meeting their needs.” I think she should look more closely at the long-term attitudes of politicians in her own party and the mainstream media.
Third, and most importantly, the GP totally fails to show any grasp of the ways in which social housing could help overcome the housing crisis, and especially the desperate need to provide many more genuinely affordable homes. Here there is a total contrast between this GP, prepared and delivered with all the resources of government, and the one produced by Jeremy Corbyn and John Healey for Labour earlier in the year. One fiddles at the edges and is going nowhere, the other is a genuine agenda for reform and the re-establishment of social rented housing at the heart of the housing system.
Some other points that strike me on this first reading of the green paper include:
It shows little understanding of how social housing estates have evolved since the Right to Buy. In some places RTB has brought about sustainable home ownership, but in too many others it has simply led to the enrichment of individuals who have either let at much higher rents or sold on for others to do so. It has been a huge policy error to allow social housing to become private rented housing in such large numbers. Mixed tenure estates involving high levels of private renting are harder and more costly to manage. The GP has no discussion of these issues let alone proposals to deal with some of them.
The GP says it is dealing with all of social housing including leaseholders, but the section on leaseholding is so scant it is almost insulting. It shows little appreciation of one of the key weaknesses of right to buy: service charges. Many leaseholders have faced financial ruin due to major works bills and, because many struggle to pay their service charges, they are often the group most likely to oppose local improvements.
There are several proposals that should be welcomed, even if they are really just ending a previous bad policy. For example, deciding not to implement the 2016 Act’s provision that ‘flexible tenancies’ should become mandatory. The GP says these will remain open to local discretion. In addition the forced sale of ‘high value’ council homes to fund housing associations right to buy will not proceed. That is a relief. And finally, I would welcome the commitment to revise the Decent Homes Standard, which has not changed since 2006. It should incorporate wider standards for the estate environment and be much stronger on health and safety and especially fire safety.
I had hoped that there would be a clear announcement that the government will fund a replacement for the National Tenant Voice which it wound up in 2010. Instead it makes noises suggesting that support will be forthcoming for a new ‘independent platform for tenants, based on widespread engagement, to enable them to have their voices heard more effectively at a national level.’, which is what the NTV was.
There were two areas where a little chill ran down my spine. First the GP says that the government are considering “a new stock transfer programme to promote the transfer of local authority housing particularly to community-based housing associations.” New proposals would be needed only if such a programme was not voluntary.
Second, there is a section on Universal Credit that is a work of fiction totally unrelated to the actual experience people are having with the benefit. It reads like a Duncan Smith speech from five years ago: “Universal Credit is designed to mirror the world of work, to give people control over their lives and encourage them to take responsibility for their financial affairs.” Surely no-one believes that any more?
Finally, I note that the GP strikes a negative tone about tenant management organisations, which I think is not justified despite the debate about who was responsible for what prior to the Grenfell fire.
There will be no Parliamentary scrutiny of the Green Paper until the Autumn, and it may have passed into deserved obscurity by then. But there are a few areas where the government needs to be pushed to deliver, and a few others where it should be pushed to stop before it has started. Taken in the round, this Green Paper does not affect the debate about the housing crisis and the status of tenants in society one jot.