The social housing green paper shows Whitehall’s wilful ignorance of social housing - RSA

The social housing green paper shows Whitehall’s wilful ignorance of social housing


  • Picture of Atif Shafique
    Associate Director, Public Services and Communities (Sabbatical)
  • Public Services & Communities
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The green paper is a timid response to the decades-long denigration of social housing and its tenants that culminated in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The government’s much anticipated social housing green paper launched today. The one major positive is that a green paper on social housing was actually produced (a first for a Conservative government). For consecutive governments in the UK, home ownership and private housing markets have been the focal point of policy, at the expense of social housing. Rhetorically at least, the green paper tries to elevate the status of social housing and to challenge the stigma that the media and politicians have fuelled - from David Cameron’s obsession with “sink estates” to Tony Blair’s anti-social behaviour agenda.

Regrettably, the green paper does very little to reverse the decades-long denigration of social housing and its tenants. Cynics may even argue that it reads as a document that offers the absolute minimum possible to save face in response to an event as serious as Grenfell.

Policymakers have shown a serious lack of introspection, setting a virtually impossible task: raising the status of social housing while continuing policies that have brought it to the brink of collapse.

Indeed, there is no letup in the dominant approach to housing, which is centred on channeling state resources into private housing markets at the direct expense of the social rented sector. As organisations including Shelter, the LGA and JRF have noted, the green paper offers no new money for socially affordable housebuilding and shows no real interest in scrapping borrowing caps for councils so that they can start to build again. One of the paper’s flagship ideas - helping tenants into ownership of their home - will have the long-term effect of reducing the social housing stock even further. Curiously, then, a green paper on social housing ultimately becomes just another one about private home ownership.

This suggests that central government just doesn’t understand - or is wilfully ignorant about - the root causes of the crisis in social housing and the stigma imposed on its tenants.

As David Fee argues in a compelling essay, today’s problems are the result of the housing policies and social agendas of consecutive governments, in particular their efforts to refashion homeowners and market consumers as model citizens and social housing tenants as problem citizens. Over time social housing has become “a tool used to craft a socially acceptable form of behaviour by making it a conditional right.” Housing registers, tenancy agreements and anti-social behaviour legislation are just some of the tools that have been used to punish those whose behaviour is deemed unacceptable, and reward those that constitute the “deserving poor” - the aspirational and those in work. This has accelerated since 2010, for example in the use of fixed term tenancies - which have shown no effectiveness in promoting ‘aspirational behaviour’ and mobility, instead fuelling anxiety and insecurity. The green paper makes some important concessions on the latter, but shows little recognition of the problematic nature of using housing as a tool for policing the poor.

The stigma attached to social housing is also connected a broader context in which social housing has become extremely residualised as a direct result of decades of government policy, from ‘Right to Buy’ through to the significant redistribution of state resources and support away from supporting the social rented sector and into private housing markets (including indirectly through housing benefit). The stock of social housing has dwindled to such a degree that it is fast becoming a form of tenure that provides a welfare safety net or ambulance service for the poorest and neediest. Social housing has long lost its universality and is increasingly a tenure of last resort. This has created an environment for stigma, myths and stereotypes about social housing and its tenants to proliferate.

The government’s green paper only continues the convention of seeing social housing as a tenure for the neediest and a springboard into private home ownership. If the aim was to enhance the status and integrity of social housing, there is clearly much work left to do.

A serious way forward is to establish - at the very least - a genuine parity of esteem between socially affordable homes and market-based housing, and to reverse the policy fixation with promoting speculation-driven private home ownership as the end route and aspiration for all.

To find out more about the RSA’s work on Housing Equity, click here.

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