A few weeks ago I was at an event held by the organisation I work for. The purpose of the day (well, half day really…) was to outline the vision for the company’s future. El Capitan and his deputy were there to deliver presentations, relatively smoothly, and gather feedback on the plans for the development of the business. He said a few things of note, but one really stuck. “You can either whinge about a problem, or you can do something about it.” On the face of it this is a rather obvious statement, but sometimes you need to state the bleeding obvious.
The elections on Thursday night potentially present a new challenge to the social housing sector. Whilst I do not believe for one second that Nigel Farage and his ilk will ever make it to the holy trough that is Westminster, at least not in large numbers, they pose our sector a distinct set of issues. The success of UK Independence Party will impact on the policies the other parties pursue. When politicians get scared they instinctively shift their policies to the right. And believe me the Tories are positively quaking in their very expensive boots. Unburdened by the need to appear sympathetic to the politically liberal parts of the UK Farage has managed to gain a large slice of the right-wing populist vote. Though the picture in the local elections was more nuanced (for an excellent look at the potential impact of UKIP on housing check out Colin Wiles’ latest blog) the overall increase in support for UKIP is a concern. Whilst Ed Miliband is still scrambling around trying to look like he could lead a country and playing up a relatively successful campaign. David Cameron has already started to roll out the “I’m more right wing than him” crap. Alas poor Nick Clegg looks like he’s been mugged twice for his lunch money before even making it to the school bus stop. Take five bro, take five.
The initial focus of the impact of UKIP’s success will undoubtedly be on how we approach the Europe question, after all that is their raison d’être, but this will soon shift elsewhere, particularly with a General Election less than a year away. Crime, health, the economy and housing (lurking somewhere at the bottom) will all be fought over in the months to come. Consequently, when it comes to housing, we need to start shaping the debate on our terms, and soon. The Tories won’t want to be out-flanked by the ‘we hate Europe, but don’t mind taking its expenses, brigade’. Expect more of the same rhetoric we have heard in recent years. People on benefits want something for nothing, they are scroungers, non-deserving. Austerity is the only way forward, cuts and tough decisions must be made. It is of course largely a load of bull, but it plays well with the crowd. I am deeply concerned that the benefit cap will be lowered and housing benefit for under 25s will be stopped. These would be disastrous steps but sadly I wouldn’t put it past Cameron et al to implement them.
I know I’m teaching you lot to suck eggs when I say that social landlords do so much more than just provide a property for someone to live in. But honestly ask your friends (if you don’t have any ask a friend of a colleague, or your mum) what they know about social housing and social housing tenants. Chances are they will roll off something akin to a cross between Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle. They will also probably spill out some half-truths Daily Mail-style around benefit recipients. The only way to debunk the common misconception around social housing, and the welfare state in general, is to show the overwhelming good that it does.
For some social housing is just a stepping stone. For others it is a lifeline. And yes for some it is an easy life. But I will gladly suffer a wretched few for all the good we do as a sector. Shout for social housing and Council Homes Chat are doing brilliant work around providing a true picture of what social housing means to the people that need it. As is #socialhousing stories and the work being done by Adrian Capon and Michelle Reid. An honourable mention must also go to Mary O’Hara via her new book Austerity Bites. Her piece in the Guardian today flogging her new book was a stark reminder of how valued the welfare state is by those who rely on its support. As well as how under threat from funding cuts those on the front line in deprived communities are. It is these stories that we need to tell.
Fundamentally we need to humanise the debate on social housing. The old saying that one death is a tragedy but that a million is a statistic holds as true with housing. One person on benefits is a tragedy but millions are scroungers and scallywags. It is our responsibility, as part of efforts to take hold of the debate around social housing, to make the voices of the most vulnerable heard. To make sure that they aren’t discarded and swept under the carpet of the consciousness of the general public. Finally, we need to be better at showing what we do as organisations. That we work to the betterment of communities in which we operate, often providing or subsidising services that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And we are good at it. It’s about time we were a little more vocal, and for god’s sake to do it outside of 24Housing and Inside Housing as well as in them.
I’ll leave you with probably the best response to the elections results from the left-wing comedian Mark Thomas who simply stated; “Don’t despair, organise.” We’ve got less than 12 months to get social housing to the fore. Better get cracking.
Ps Mark Thomas has the best Twitter tag-line of all time – Husband of a hate filled witch according to Louise Mensch.