Grasping the housing nettle, by John Perry

1 Mar 07
A report published last week summarises the state of social housing and offers some solutions to the dilemmas the sector faces. But it promises no quick solutions to a complex set of problems

02 March 2007

A report published last week summarises the state of social housing and offers some solutions to the dilemmas the sector faces. But it promises no quick solutions to a complex set of problems

We are so used to reading articles in the press about 'housing' that are really about house prices, that it is refreshing to look at the issue through the other end of the telescope.

If Professor John Hills did nothing else, his report Ends and means: the future roles of social housing in England has certainly achieved that. Hills, a social policy professor at the London School of Economics, was invited to study the future of social housing eight months ago by Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly.

Now, in 228 closely argued pages, he gives a summary of the state of housing in England — not from the usual perspective of the affluent owner but from that of the poor tenant. He uses his evidence base to look at what's wrong with social housing and — albeit cautiously —suggests ways of putting it right.

It will be difficult for critics to argue that he hasn't understood what social housing is for, or that he hasn't looked properly at what it should do differently.

Most likely, those with who are against the social housing agenda will have to mine his report for snippets that they can then use to make different arguments.

So let me say what I think are his key points. First, we don't have enough houses, and the resulting high demand that cannot be met makes it much more difficult to reform the system. Paradoxically, though, building more is only part of the answer — the availability of new lettings depends much more on how we use the existing stock.

Second, social housing is a success story — in terms of conditions and affordability. But it hasn't broken (as it could have done) the link between where you live and how badly off you are.

Social tenants are twice as likely to be poor as the average householder. And while building new, mixed estates is a good idea, the bigger issue is about the existing stock, which is mainly lived in by poor people without jobs.

Third, social housing still fails to satisfy all its customers. One in five tenants is dissatisfied, worse than in the private sector.

Fourth, tenants are not sufficiently mobile — few move to get work, and many in high-demand areas can't afford to buy in the private market. Hills considers — but rejects — the idea of ending security of tenure. But he suggests a more varied housing 'offer' to new customers, including promoting low-cost home ownership.

Hills has already been criticised for being too conservative — but critics of social housing are often quick with simple solutions that pay little regard to the complexities that Hills describes.

When the Institute for Public Policy Research ran a 'commission' on the future of social housing in 2000, it faced similar problems and its central conclusion — a big drive for mixed communities, especially in the existing stock — was the same. The problem is how to achieve it.

This is where Hills is weakest. He refers briefly to the shackles that limit what social landlords can do, but makes it too easy for ministers to pass the buck to them.

Councils are largely prevented from raising extra money to create the 'decent communities' that the secretary of state wants.

And while housing associations often have reserves, they are being urged to use them to build more houses — not invest in existing estates. Hills could have made a much stronger case for a 'new localism' in housing that would devolve power and resources to landlords and to estates, with a remit to create sustainable communities.

Hills also, I think, makes too little of the connection between satisfaction levels and poverty. Is it realistic to expect higher satisfaction among people who are poorer than average, more likely to be disabled or

long-term sick, and whose children often go to below-average schools? Would any service operating in that environment really expect a lower dissatisfaction rate than the 15% applying to social landlords?

Part of Hills' remedy is to suggest what he calls more 'voice power' for tenants, which Kelly interprets as meaning greater involvement in running their estates.

But taking on a management role might be of limited appeal to many tenants. More varied ways of giving them 'voice power' are needed.

For example, inspections by the Audit Commission could be led by tenants. Or tenants could have an option to call a ballot on a change of landlord where the service is poor.

Hills' central challenge is the most difficult one: breaking down concentrated poverty, mixing tenures and getting people into jobs. It is easy to summarise yet much more difficult actually to do. But the message from his report must be that it is a vital task.

The government promised five years ago that 'no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live'. This report is a reminder that they still are. In five years, not much has changed.

John Perry is policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Housing


Did you enjoy this article?