A pivotal and groundbreaking report from the housing charity Shelter has demanded wholescale changes are made to the nation’s housing policies, including the building of 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years.
It is also demanding the establishment of a new regulator to protect social housing and private sector tenants, based on a common set of consumer friendly service standards and backed up by the resources to tackle rogue landlords and protect tenants from no-fault evictions.
Following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire, Shelter set up a commission under the stewardship of influential national figures and campaigners. It consulted more than 31,000 people over the course of 12 months and has produced a series of hard-hitting recommendations designed to make “once in a generation” changes to solve the country’s many housing ills.
Launched at the beginning of January, it attracted huge attention from the broadcast, print and digital media. The report’s authors warn that “Unless we act now, we face a future in which a generation of young families will be trapped renting privately for their whole lives, where more and more people will grow old in private rentals, where billions more in welfare costs will be paid to private landlords – and hundreds of thousands more people will be forced into homelessness.”
The Government has already promised new legislation to reshape and revitalise the country’s social housing and the commission’s report has clearly been designed with the aim of strongly influencing future housing policies.
Politicians of all major parties were slammed for their poor records in recent decades, with both Conservative and Labour Governments criticised for failing people over housing.
“Today we are feeling the effects of 40 years of failure in housing policy. This crisis has seen a catastrophic decline in social housing, leaving millions in insecure and unaffordable rented homes – with home ownership an impossible dream, and increasing numbers of people tipped into homelessness.
“From the Second World War up to 1980, we were building an average of around 126,000 social homes every year. Last year, there were only 6,463 new social homes. The private rented sector is bursting at the seams – with many renters trapped in unaffordable, insecure homes.”
The commissioners say that the building of new social housing should be treated as a national infrastructure project. If the development work is funded at least initially from borrowing, they say that the new housing will pay for itself over 39 years, largely through lower housing benefit bills and the economic boost derived from lower rents. The report says that high property prices and high rents have stifled ambition and adversely affected the population’s prosperity.
The commissioners conducting the study included the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, the Conservative former cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi, the campaigner Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack in 1993, the former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill, Ed Daffarn of Grenfell United, which represents survivors, and Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Trust thinktank.
Ed Miliband was critical of Labour’s record on social housebuilding during his time in the cabinet and urged Jeremy Corbyn to be more ambitious in setting the opposition’s plans for new housing. Baroness Warsi and Jim O’Neil acknowledged that this was a problem the market alone could not solve.
One of the main findings is how the current regulatory system is failing social renters. In 2017-18 the average time taken for a decision by the housing ombudsman was eight months.
The commission is demanding a regulator with similar muscle to the body set up in the aftermath of the financial crisis to fix a system that has left social tenants feeling ignored or branded as troublemakers for raising serious concerns.
The commission also proposes a new national tenants’ organisation to give social housing residents a voice at a regional and national level and the scrapping of rules that slow down tenants from complaining to a regulator.
These views chime with those voiced by Grenfell United, who represent the families of those who died in the fire, as well as survivors and neighbours.
Research for the commission by the Britain Thinks agency found that 31 per cent of social renters feel their landlord does not think about their interests when making decisions, a figure that rises to 38 per cent in London. Nationally only 19 per cent of social renters felt able to influence the decisions made by their landlord about their home.
Ed Daffarn said: “Social housing is not like choosing a doctor – you can’t just up sticks and move if your housing association gets a low rating. Much more is needed to put power in residents’ hands. We need a new regulation system that will be proactive and fight for residents, with real repercussions for housing associations or councils that fail in their duty.”
The Government has not made a formal response to the report’s publication but it will be under pressure to include many of its recommendations in a forthcoming White Paper on social housing. Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, has previously stated he wants to make social landlords more accountable to tenants and was conscious of the “need to increase regulation”.
By Patrick Mooney, editor