Time for social housing to stand up and be proud

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie calls for the social housing sector to take pride in its achievements and take the lead in determining its future.

The National Housing Federation has recently been conducting a ‘perception survey’ in which I was asked to take part. One of the questions is ‘Are you proud to work in the sector?’ That gave me pause for thought.

Against a background of housing associations being portrayed as the architects of much of society’s problems, along with the huge political emphasis on home ownership, I still thought ‘Yes, actually I am proud to work in this sector.’

Maybe society as a whole should reflect on what has been achieved by social housing providers in this country and what, potentially, we might be discarding. As a result of these achievements Britain doesn’t have the shanty towns and trailer parks that many other countries have, where people live a kind of twilight life separate from the rest of society. The move from large mono tenure estates to more mixed developments is a measure of Britain’s understanding of housing’s contribution to society’s well-being.

The success of social housing – alongside access to the welfare system, education and health services – is part of the whole package which has created a solid bedrock of social stability for ‘UK plc’.

We need to remember that social housing is about giving everybody access to a decent home and the chance of a stable life that enables you to participate in education and employment and look after yourself and your family. As a society, we should be proud of that.

A balanced approach

Having said all that, we shouldn’t cling to the past and set it in aspic, by any means. Perhaps it is true that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of society becoming too paternalistic. We cannot stay as we are and I believe there is an onus on housing associations to re-focus themselves so they really understand what their business is.

With deregulation being trialled and less capital grant funding available, we have to become much more self-determining. No ‘one size fits all’ and we must not force the whole sector down a single channel. We need less prescription, so housing associations can determine what is required in their area, what they are best placed to deliver as a business and how to successfully deliver that.

For example, rather than having our rents prescriptively cut by 1% each year, we should be left alone to set our own rents instead of having government formulas applied. Then, as a sector, we would be able to start making commercial decisions and, in turn, this would help tackle allegations of operational inefficiency. We would recognise, as organisations, what part of the market we are operating within so we could price and cut our cloth accordingly.

Really we should be allowed to have that freedom. Then we will be much better placed to retain and protect what the social housing sector has built up and the resulting benefits for our society.

However, we will not achieve that if we focus solely on home ownership – instead of the ‘home owning good; rental bad’ message that seems to be endlessly peddled by the powers that be, we need to bring much more balance to our approach.

We need to be creating opportunities that enable people across the whole of the income spectrum to secure a home. For all that there is aspiration to be a home owner, the reality for a lot of people is that they don’t have sufficient savings or income to support a mortgage and all that home ownership entails.

Rather than measuring political success by how many people become home owners, let’s measure it by the availability of access to a decent home – surely that is the greatest political legacy ever.