Thirty years ago a third of the population lived in council or housing association homes, now it is barely one in six. For the first time this year the English Housing Survey showed that there were more people living in the private rented sector than in the social sector.
But this long-term decline – which Labour made important but insufficient steps to arrest in the last years of government – has been accelerated dramatically by the Coalition since 2010. As a senior civil servant confided to me, there is a deep hostility to council and housing association homes at the heart of this government: ‘David Cameron thinks social housing means sink estates; George Osborne just sees Labour voters’.
This is evident in the dramatic increase in right-to-buy discounts, which leaves councils unable to build enough homes to replace those that are sold. It was clear in the first spending review when government funding for new affordable homes was slashed by 60 per cent and since in successive cuts to housing benefit which forces councils and housing associations to pick up the slack. It is also apparent in the ‘affordable rent’ programme which is partially privatising the cost of social housing, not just for newly-built homes but also for re-lets.
Despite these seismic shifts in public policy, there has been little in the way of sustained opposition. Much of the housing sector seems reluctant to pick a fight with hostile ministers. Charity and campaign groups prefer to talk about shared ownership and intermediate tenures, while housing associations stretch their ‘social purpose’ and some talk openly of operating in a ‘post-grant’ world.
The time is ripe therefore for those of us who believe that the economic and social benefits of public housing are irreplaceable to refresh and remake the case. Less than 18 months out from a general election we need to look closely at the benefits that council and housing association homes bring and map out the political and financial steps needed to launch a large-scale new building programme.
That is why I am very pleased to be chairing the advisory group for a new Fabian Society project on social housing, starting in the coming weeks with an analysis of what the public think about social housing. This will continue a proud Fabian tradition of work on social housing stretching back to Sidney Webb’s involvement as a member of the London County Council, when it became one of the first local authorities to build its own housing. This project aims to draw on that proud tradition and reshape it for the twenty first century.
John Healey MP is a former Housing and Treasury Minister.
If you would like to learn more about and/or get involved with the research examining attitudes to social housing then please contact our senior researcher Natan Doron on email@example.com
This work is part of the Fabian Society’s next state programme. For more information about the programme please visit http://www.fabians.org.uk/programmes/next-state/