It was a first for the National Housing Federation to get a serving Prime Minister to speak at one of their Conferences. It’s obviously a feather in their cap, proving that government takes them seriously. But there was a degree of fawning in the audience – ‘rapturous applause and a partial standing ovation’ said Inside Housing, ‘it’s fair to say she is smashing it with this audience’ tweeted Polly Neate of Shelter – that is not shared by those who need homes now.
So, are we to believe that one speech with some warm words means that housing associations are now ‘a trusted partner’ of government? And that an announcement of a tiny pot of money starting in four years’ time means they will get long-term guaranteed funding sufficient to do the job? David Orr’s inadvertently accurate comment that ‘the penny has dropped’ sadly told the real story. Yep, a penny, thanks Ma’am.
The truth is closer to this: ‘the movement’ has been played by the PM’s political adviser Gavin Barwell, easily the best of the many housing ministers we have had over the last 8 years (for the simple reason that he actually knows something about the subject). He also knows how to get favourable headlines with a well-placed non-announcement, an unchecked promise of money, and a bit of flattery. May said what they wanted to hear and in glowing terms: she praised the movement’s Victorian pioneers and the campaigning innovators of 50 years ago and commended the modern non-profit businesses. And no slagging off like there was from her predecessor.
That perceptive commentator Isabel Hardman saw this as one of a kind of speech that May makes. She is very keen to talk about her mission to tackle ‘burning injustices’ like mental health and housing. “What is missing from speeches on either topic is the sort of government action that might match up to a ‘personal mission’” says Hardman in the Spectator. “This is the nub of the problem: there isn’t enough money coming forward to solve these ‘burning injustices’, nor enough room for those who want to think radically about housing policy or indeed the provision of mental health care to do so.”
The doyen of housing bloggers, Jules Birch, was feeling generous. “When was the last time a Conservative prime minister made a speech more favourable to social housing?”, he asked in Inside Housing, whilst also noting that this week’s promise of £2 billion was even flakier than last year’s. Jules makes his judgement largely on the bit of the speech that was not about money. Here May spoke in carefully crafted Barwellisms, with housing associations taking more of a lead in developments, being more ambitious, being able to ride the business cycle, and praising the non-profit nature of their role.
It is also true, and a relief, that some of Cameron and Osborne’s most extreme policies have been reversed or forgotten about. And I welcome the major contrast in her language with that of Cameron and Osborne, both of whom disliked housing associations and hated social housing. Speaking positively about social housing, especially if it is taken up in the media, is a start.
But what does it add up to? It feels like the boxer who has the opponent on the ropes, about go down, and stops hitting quite so hard. The money means nothing and was not explained in the context of the next spending review, it is probably no more than existing puny budgets rolled through into future years. Jam tomorrow, but spread very thin. It contrasts with a major report for London First this week showing the vast increase in both public and private capital spending that is needed to achieve the government’s stated aim of 300,000 homes a year – a 40% increase is required with 65% in London, they estimate. Put another way, housing’s share of UK GDP must grow from 2.3% to 3.3%. Unlike May’s promise, these really are big numbers.
The love now showered on housing associations creates nothing more than a scumble, a thin veneer. Underneath, social housing is still seen as a holding pen for people who really should want to be home owners. And home ownership is where the real money is going. The view that people who rent are inferior to home owners is at the root of stigma, and it has not changed. Policy reversal is also very partial: the Osborne cuts in housing investment have not been restored, the welfare reforms are still destroying lives, homelessness is still rising, rents are far too high in all sectors, and the bedroom tax is still in place. And it was noticeable that she managed to irritate the Tory chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, for implying that housing associations were the keepers of the legacy of council housing.
A few good headlines for the Prime Minister followed her speech, it must make a relief from Brexit. Most of the national press and broadcast media swallowed it whole, repeating the ‘extra money’ line with no analysis, as if the cheques would be arriving next week rather than 2022. But even with May’s welcome new language the old tropes refuse to die. The BBC’s commentary included the statement that in the 1980s ‘those who couldn’t afford to buy were left in sink estates’, eliciting a complaint from John Popham who called it a slur on social housing tenants. His excellent YouTube video can be found here. (By the way, you can subscribe to his channel through the link). As is their way, the BBC just denied that it was inappropriate, but also referred to another programme about sink estates to make their point. Of course, ‘we value your feedback’.
Not being quite so battered is an improvement of sorts. The total hostility of the previous era towards social housing seems to be ending, and that creates an opportunity. But it requires an altogether more assertive stance which includes councils as well as associations. For the millions in desperate housing need, happy clappy is not the right response.