Last Tuesday, I attended the launch of Shelter’s report “A Vision for Social Housing”. First, the good news. The recommendations significantly out-bid other mainstream policies, including those of the Labour Party. The report calls for a 20 year programme to build 3.1 million “social’ homes, with investment of £10 billion a year. Labour’s housing Green Paper only commits to spending £4 billion. The current government has committed only £2 billion for “social housing” over the next 10 years.
The report makes an irrefutable argument that building the homes we need would pay for itself (within 30 years) through savings in Hosing Benefit and the many other costs resulting from the false economies of current policy. Shelter is also calling for a broad political alliance to ensure that building the homes we need isn’t derailed by changes of government, or other political events like Brexit. As one of the report’s commissioners, Jim O’Neill, quite rightly said, there are no excuses and it was refreshing to hear both Ed Miliband and Sayeeda Warsi admit they hadn’t done enough when they had more political clout.
The report was prompted by the Grenfell atrocity and there are some important measures suggested for ensuring that, as Doreen Lawrence puts it, tenants’ lives are never again put at risk due to “institutional indifference”.
There were repeated assurances that the report would not be allowed to gather dust and would lead to action, but worryingly, when asked, there didn’t appear to be any clear strategy for how this would happen. Nonetheless, Shelter is a respected, influential voice, so this report could be a significant breakthrough moment.
Here comes the “but”. Shelter has effectively air-brushed council housing and its specific identity out of the past, present or future. The report goes into considerable detail about the causes and consequences of the housing crisis, with the fundamental, if obvious, conclusion that we’ve not been building enough new homes for people with low or moderate incomes, what Shelter refers to, misleadingly, as “social housing”.
With others, for years I’ve insisted on making the distinction between council housing and other forms of non-market rented homes. This is not a semantic, academic or peripheral issue. It’s absolutely critical to answering the question Shelter puts: “How have we got here?”
It’s disappointing that the report appears to deliberately manipulate data to present a distorted impression of post-war housing. At the launch, Ed Miliband rightly drew attention to the country’s astonishing house-building achievements after 1945. But it was, emphatically, council housing, not “social housing”, that carried the load. Of the 860,870 homes completed in the UK between 1949 and 1952, 82% were built through local authorities. The proportion of new council homes reduced over subsequent years, but was still over half of total output until 1959. Throughout this period, the number of new housing association (HA) homes built a year averaged 4%. Council housing continued to average over 40% of new homes built a year from 1960 – 1980, while the average percentage of new HA homes stayed in single figures. During the four decades after the war, local authorities always built at least 110,000 homes a year
The Shelter report makes no mention of any of this.
Council house building has virtually dried-up since the 1990s. Meanwhile, HAs have been promoted, by all governments, as the monopoly providers of non-market rented homes. But they have never come near filling the gap. The high-water mark of new council homes was 1953, with 245,160 homes completed. HAs have never built more than 40,000 a year, or exceeded 22% of total output. An increasing proportion of these homes have not been for social rent. In 2016, approximately one-third of the 30,000 homes completed by HAs were built by the “G15” of big London-based organisations. Of these, only 14% were for social rent. 28% were for so-called Affordable Rent of up to 80% of market level. 28% were for full market rent or market sale.
Again, the Shelter report is silent on this. There is only muted, implied criticism of the role of HAs and their creeping – in some cases, galloping – commercialism. Instead, the big HAs’ line that they’ve been reluctant to make their corporate shift is repeated, when in fact, they have actively lobbied for it.
This is about policy, not politics, although of course, the two are symbiotic. By failing to acknowledge the true role of council housing, Shelter are ignoring the sharpest tool in the box.