At last week’s CIH 2013 housing conference, I was struck by how much of the debate seemed to be a sort of Groundhog Day for the sector, with the same old calls from the sector for more social housing and the same responses from the government.
With the CSR announcement equating to £3bn of capital subsidy and £5bn of public land to be made available for new homes from 2015, and certainty on rents provided via CPI, surely the sector could and should start delivering, and break free of it's Groundhog Day…?
On the last day of #housing2013, @GordonPatAccent tweeted that one of his ideas picked up from the conference to resolve bedroom tax dilemmas was issuing shared tenancies. @jantaran replied that was nothing new & was happening in London in 1973. That got me thinking. Is the sector facing its own Sam Tyler moment; “I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home..."
Those who promote the golden age thinking behind the ‘Spirit of ’45’ and calls for mass investment in social housing might be considered comatose to public opinion and the changed global nature of the economy. Public attitudes to welfare and social housing have changed and have been changing for some time – pre coalition government and pre credit crunch. The sector’s calls for more social housing are not only falling on deaf ears politically, but also socially. Hannah Fearn’s prediction that the bedroom tax would not be this government’s poll tax earlier this year was controversial but spot on, and recent polls show continued widespread support for welfare reform and very little for more social housing. Individual rather than collective responsibility for not having adequate ‘shelter’ prevails.
And very few apart from some in the sector and its professional lobbying groups are up in arms about the ‘housing crisis’. Even Steve Hilditch questioned at #housing2013 whether the sector is deluding itself that housing will be a top priority at the next election. Sure it’s picking up some media attention, but more about house prices falling or rising and the political consequences of the availability/affordability of mortgages. Generation Y (the under 31’s) have been very quiet. A recent article in the spectator even suggests many of ’generation rent’ are actually ‘content to rent’ and don’t want to buy. They’ve seen what negative equity does to people, sense an overpriced market, and maybe the influence of ‘Friends’ is wider than just re-runs on Comedy Central but a preferred way of life? What they really seem to want is just more security of tenure and longer tenancies which the sector could and should lead on delivering under affordable rent.
Ch ch ch ch changes
Aside from shared tenancies, current changes have other similarities with 1973. It was pre Housing Benefit when tenants were responsible for paying their own rent and there was a direct relationship with their landlord. It was before ‘welfare housing’ when ordinary families could access council housing. It was when many recently formed housing associations began to deliver alternative renting options for the vulnerable and the squeezed middle who weren’t being catered for by councils – the Cathy Come Home effect. It was when bedsits and one bed flats were built or formed from conversions in cities.
1973 may have been an ethically challenged period compared to our brave new pc world, but there are plenty of housing parallels, and it was a relatively simple time with a clear landlord/tenant relationship. Like Sam Tyler finding himself suddenly in a world where modern technology is no help and he has to revert to old-school wits, is that a bad thing?
With changes not seen in a generation taking place, it certainly feels like a journey to another planet for the sector. Ideologically there are those who may disagree with welfare reform and suspect it is cost cutting dressed up as something else, and want a return to a period when the private rented sector was a niche tenure. But the two Ed’s have not come out and said they’ll repeal any of welfare reform, and are only ‘considering’ a change from revenue to capital subsidy of housing. An easy enough statement to make in opposition. And affordable rent really is the prodigal son of what the two B’s oversaw in 13 years of Labour being in power – a gradual erosion of grant levels across the sector and expansion of intermediate/ key worker schemes at 80% of market rent. Economic regulation is also the prodigal daughter of the Labour Governments Cave Review of Regulation– drawing & quoting directly from its recommendations.
Live and Let Die
After thinking it's all a ruse and then pleading for understanding, in Life on Mars Sam Tyler slowly realises that if he is indeed in a dream state, there appears to be no end to it. Any doubts he has are quashed by a punch in the kidneys from Gene Hunt - the equivalent of George Osborne’s post budget statement this year that ‘more social housing is not the solution to the country’s housing problems’. Eventually Sam enjoys solving the same challenges with fewer resources and a ‘creative’ approach focussed on core policing. The analogies are there for housing.
Like Sam Tyler, ‘home’ for the sector will never be the same, and over a period of time may not be where it chooses to return. Maybe it’s just a question of a majority in the sector accepting that like Sam Tyler does, and moving on? This is the new reality. There are plenty of solutions needed: for the squeezed ‘content to rent’ middle who can’t access social housing; increasing numbers of homeless who it’s costing council’s £2m a week to house in B&B , and existing tenants affected by welfare reform.
Time to 'turn and face the strain' and break free of Groundhog Day…?