It’s pretty hard to escape the fact that the current incumbents at Westminster don’t particularly like social housing. It is even harder to avoid needless introspective bouts of Balotelli-esk ‘why always me’. Sadly this week has rather kicked home the point that, like a wronged (and incredibly persistent/vindictive) ex, we are persona non grata with the boys in blue.
A while back I was moved to write to my local MP, it was a moment of weakness/dizzying optimism and one that is likely not to be repeated. The response was reasonably well thought-out, albeit strewn with the toeing the line malark you would expect. It was an insightful experience as it showed just how deliberately singular government thinking has become on social housing. The ‘S’ word wasn’t used (no Social Housing here please, we’re British), everything was affordable housing, definitely not social. As John Bibby notes in his blog for Shelter (an excellent, if depressing read) this is a rather broad term. More to the point it gives the boys in blue a lot of room for manoeuvre when talking figures.
So far, so already known, but the key thing to note is just how effective the Coalition Government has been at reining back the building of of truly social housing. It really is quite shocking, when housing need is at its highest for decades. When low pay is becoming a real issue for millions in the UK, the very housing that can help ease some of the crisis is at its lowest level for years. The last time new social housing building was this low we were still mopping up after a short, angry Austrian decided to go smashy-smashy across Europe. However, it is not just the low level of Social Housing being built, but the type of housing being built in its place that is of interest here. Affordable is not so much the new black, but the new social. When the Coalition is talking about Affordable Housing it means Affordable, not Social. It also means stuff like help to buy, sneaky sods!
Borrowed Graph 1 – Breakdown of Affordable/Social Housing builds
When you look at graph numero dos from Shelter it is even more depressing and for all the sector’s guff around developing and building (borrowing a lot of money in the process) we are still building nowhere near enough homes as we should be/need to be. Yes there are a plethora of mitigating factors, reduced grant, an economy that would embarrass even Soviet era Russia in terms of performance, the culling of
badgers Section106 agreements, Right to Buy’s re-birth, the desolation of Smaug Council house building. Regardless, we need to do more in order to ensure that we can build more.
Borrowed Graph 2 – Social Housing Built Since WW2
Whilst I have previously stressed the need for financial prudence we must still develop as a sector. Remember JC and his parable of the talents? That story stands as true here as it does in Sunday School rooms up and down our increasingly secular land, even for an atheist like myself. Use what you have got to the best of your ability. No-one likes a landlord who buries his/her kitty in the middle of a middle-eastern desert and leaves it there. It is for the large part why I question the long term viability of smaller organisations. If you are small and grant is scarce you can only borrow so much against the value of your assets in order to grow. Otherwise you will be trying to squeeze more and more from the same resource. Ever tried squeezing an orange? Only so much will come from it…
So what can we do? As a sector we often talk about the need for innovation and creativity but very rarely act on it. Now more than ever is the time to think outside of the box because, as both the graphs show, the funding game is changing and we need to change with it. That being said some green shoots are appearing. Pre-fab houses are back en-vogue, albeit in a more sophisticated form. Borrowing a feck-tonne of private finance in order to fill the grant void is also being trialled. Rent to buy, deposit free mortgages, wage linked tenancies/rents are all in place or being mooted. So despite the doom and gloom there is a healthy air of ‘fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen’ in the sector. More of this is needed otherwise the graphs above will continue to look as grim as the Labour Party’s PR team when they heard Ed beat his brother to become leader.