There’s been a lot of shouting about social housing on the internet recently, and I DON’T MEAN IN THE ALL-CAPS SENSE. Well, not entirely. SHOUT (Social Housing Under Threat) have released Affordable, Flourishing, Fair – A Manifesto to Save and Extend Social Rented Housing. The document is an impassioned defence of social housing, and its principles and proposals have caused quite a stir among professionals and advocates of the sector.
So, is this a call to arms for social housing, or just a lot of noise? What are SHOUT…er, shouting about?
SHOUT – The Case for Social Housing
It’s time to say enough is enough. We need a genuinely affordable, flourishing and fair social housing sector. – SHOUT manifesto
I won’t take up too much room describing the manifesto in detail – it’s only a 24-page document and you can get a copy yourself for free here. The key aims can broadly be separated into two categories of change: practical and philosophical.
The practical objectives revolve around building 100,000 new social rented houses each year (as part of a wider delivery of 200,000 dwellings a year required by the UK). Most other practical goals support this concern: removing borrowing caps, increasing grant, replacing Right-To-Buy on a like-for-like basis, and requiring new garden cities to contain a significant proportion of social rented housing all support the primary aim.
The philosophical goals (for want of a better word) address the perception of social housing and its place within the UK: social housing should be seen as a tenure of equal status to others, such as private renting and home ownership, with an emphasis on fighting the demonization and stigmatisation of social housing tenants, and replacing it with a more balanced account that relays the positive and affirming stories of the tenure.
Importantly, SHOUT’s campaign is not party-political – rather, they seek to establish a cross-party consensus for their stated aims, moving beyond the somewhat depressing political zeitgeist reported in the manifesto by an anonymous civil servant:
“David Cameron thinks social housing means sink estates while Osborne just sees Labour voters”. – Anonymous Civil Servant
With that established, I want to ask two questions in this article. Firstly, are the aims and proposals of SHOUT the right ones to set? Secondly, why do we need a manifesto at all?
I support the aims of the manifesto – I have worked in social housing for the last six years, and firmly believe in and defend its merits. This is particularly true of seeing social rented housing as an equal and viable form of tenure. Many cannot afford or simply do not want to pursue home ownership, but renting from a private landlord should not be the only other option. In a way, I would have thought that to have a local authority or reputable housing association as a landlord would be better – there is more regulation, property standards are generally higher (remember that 33% of PRS properties would have failed the decent homes standard in 2012), and due to the improving nature of governance, social rented landlords are more accountable.
Still, SHOUT does not set itself easy challenges. Replacing Right To Buy properties on a like-for-like basis – or, at least, a one-for-one basis – was something that the government is committed to anyway…it just isn’t delivering on the promise: more than 100,000 properties were sold last year, but only 1,662 replacements were started. If this is not happening now, what proposals are SHOUT putting forward to change this? Given the emphasis on how important social housing is, I would have expected the manifesto to go further and insist that Right To Buy were phased out all together – surely stopping the problem at source is better than planning to mitigate the problem on an ongoing basis?
Another one of the manifesto’s explicit aims is to “restore the political consensus that existed during this post-war period from 1945 to 1979.”, but as Jules Birch comments, “it seems naïve to imagine that the clock can be turned back to before the Localism Act and still less to 1979 or 1945.” It is unlikely that we are going to see a return to the levels of building that occurred post-1945, especially when there is currently little political will to provide higher levels of capital funding. There has been much talk about the ‘silver bullet of subsidy’, but how likely is this to occur when there has been no evidence from the current administration of even approaching that option? We are in an unstable economy: are SHOUT asking the government for a pony when it can only afford a hamster?
Regardless of the aims set though, none can deny that is a step in the right direction for SHOUT to be suggesting practical improvements for the sector in the first place…or can they?
“[W]e tenant reps have been shouting up for social housing for the past 40 odd years and nothing has changed. So what’s new about SHOUT? How do you get those who ‘allegedly’ govern us to listen?” – Jim Nicholl, commenting on arch-housing.org.uk
The question posed by Jim is a challenging one, and worth considering. Let’s not believe that the benefits of social housing have not been known before; anyone working in the sector will know the good work that happens. This isn’t a recent revelation. But the social housing sector is very diverse: arguably, the social housing sector isn’t a sector. There is no one body that speaks of social housing, and when key players of the sector are brought together there is shortage in diversity of opinion.
Certainly regional concerns impact this: measures that will work in the South-East will not necessarily work in the North, for example. But what SHOUT does is attempt to bring the fundamental precepts of social housing together in a single manifesto, and suggest a way to deliver them. The proposals may not be perfect, but there is now something concrete to discuss. You see, people have been ‘shouting up’ social housing for the past 40 years, Jim, but they have usually done so from silos, individual voices that got lost in the white noise of politics. But a coordinated shout…ah, perhaps that united voice can be heard.
Another valid reason why we need the SHOUT manifesto is that the escalating assault on social housing – political, financial, and philosophical – has taken its toll on the confidence of social housing to stand up and be counted. This is understandable: when resources are almost uniformly spent supporting the most vulnerable – fighting the fires caused by welfare reform – it is difficult to find time or energy to rise from the wreckage and utter more than a world-weary croak.
The solution, according Richard Carter (Chair of Suffolk Housing Society), is that the sector needs to “Stop whingeing, stop playing the victim, stop wallowing in a ‘life’s not fair’ mindset.” To paraphrase a song from pop group Little Mix, SHOUT tells us to…
“…speak up, tells us to shout out,
Talk a bit louder, be a bit prouder,
Tell them it’s affirmative, positive, everything you do not see.”
Maybe a call to arms is what we need to move beyond the ‘little me’ attitude social housing has had for too long; move beyond a helpless victim mindset and instead stand up for the benefits, merits, and value of social housing.
The message has to go beyond housing and the twitterati on social media. It has to be heard by the people who matter – the voters and the politicians….– Jon Land, 24Housing Editor
But SHOUTing on Twitter is not enough. Infographics, blog posts, twibbons, and launch parties are great, but preaching to the converted will not expand the choir. For policies to change, politicians and voters must be reached: both must understand the benefits of social housing, and must believe in the cause before standing with the SHOUT campaign.
What’s the best way for this to happen? Allow me to assume my role as Kung Fu sifu and ask you to consider the tiger…
“A tiger does not shout its ‘tigritude, it acts” – Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Dramatist
Voters will stand by the aims of the SHOUT campaign when they are shown – not told – the benefits of social housing. Many already know these merits, whether by personal experience, research, or interest, but many more do not, holding onto and perpetuating the myths that SHOUT seek to dispel about social rented housing.
Landlords of social rented housing need to begin working towards the aims of SHOUT without waiting for the government: increase local good news stories, commit to high customer service, and imagine themselves as competitors of other tenure. My challenge to social landlords is to act as though social housing wasn’t the last chance saloon for shelter. Instead, sell the product – make it tenure of choice, not desperation. In doing so, you will necessarily demonstrate its values. In demonstrating the values of social housing through selling it, the voters will buy the product, whether by living in it or by being convinced of its value. And when the voters are convinced the politicians will be as well, because that conviction will demonstrate itself through voting.
I believe the real message of the manifesto is not just to remind a sector to shout its case, but to demonstrate the case through an increase in affirmative and confident action.
After all, actions speak louder than words – even those that are shouted.
Affordable, Flourishing, Fair – A Manifesto to Save and Extend Social Rented Housing, SHOUT, June 2014, Available: https://onedrive.live.com/view.aspx?cid=D36D6C8B249EE19C&resid=D36D6C8B249EE19C%21146&app=WordPdf
Inside Housing, 13th June 2014, Comment, Letters: “The sector should stop feeling sorry for itself”, Page 20
80% of councils struggling to replace right to buy homes, Inside Housing, Online: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/80-of-councils-struggling-to-replace-right-to-buy-homes/7002799.article, Available: June 2014
Opinion: Time for housing to come out fighting, 24Dash, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2014-06-05-Opinion-Time-for-housing-to-come-out-fighting?utm_source=24dash+newsletter+subscribers&utm_campaign=be28889d97-UA-31909-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8420f27959-be28889d97-494505#.U6aivpRdWfY, Available: June 2014
SHOUT for social housing, ARCH, Online: http://www.arch-housing.org.uk/policy-and-practice/arch-blog/shout-for-social-housing.aspx?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ARCH-HousingBlog+%28ARCH+Blog%29, Available: June 2014
Voice of the Sector, Inside Housing, Online: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/home/analysis/voice-of-the-sector/7003854.article, Available: June 2014