We hear you, Robert Jenrick: Social housing is right at the bottom of your to-do list

Published on September 29, 2020

Published on September 29, 2020

Three years and countless housing ministers ago, Sajid Javid announced a Social Housing Green Paper in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, promising a “fundamental rethink of social housing in this country”. It took almost a year to materialise but nevertheless, tenants across the country engaged in good faith with the accompanying consultation.

Two years later and we are yet to see even a summary of the consultation responses, let alone the White Paper itself, which we are now told will arrive “by the end of the year”. We’re not holding our breath.

In a list of the current Housing Minister’s responsibilities to be found on the government’s web pages, home ownership comes first, with affordable housing and building safety only midway down. The White Paper is no longer on that list at all and is now the responsibility of a junior minister. Is that a list in order of priority?

That may explain the snail’s pace of the Social Housing Green Paper consultation, compared to that on the government’s latest homeownership fad, First Homes: consultation took place in February this year, analysis came out in August this year. Why the rush?

No seriously, why the rush? Hundreds of thousands of people have been living through a pandemic in unsafe, overcrowded housing, with insecure tenancies, in arrears, or with no roof over their heads whatsoever. They needed, and still need, social rented housing, not another type of ‘home ownership’.

Announced this month, the new Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) has in fact cut what was already insufficient funding for ‘affordable’ housing in London for 2021-26, in the name of giving a greater share to other parts of the country. London and other regions are now being wrongly pitted against one another in a tug of war over what is ultimately an inadequate pot of money.

The issue is not where in the country grant is spent (it should be allocated geographically according to assessed need), but the tenures it is being spent on and how little there is of it in the first place. A London Tenants Federation briefing published last year highlighted the extent to which intermediate housing comes at the expense of social housing in London.

Between 2013 and 2017, London’s backlog of unmet need for intermediate housing (eg. Shared ownership) was cut by 90%, from 46,000 units-not-yet-delivered to just 4,000, according to the Greater London Authority’s Strategic Housing Market Assessements for those years. At the same time, unmet need for social rented housing was allowed to snowball, from 61,000 units-not-yet-delivered in 2013 to 163,000 in 2017. You need only to exit a tube station in London to witness the personal effects of such misplaced political priorities.

The latest Affordable Homes Programme finally makes a bit more room for ‘social rented’ housing, but they’re not putting their money where their mouth is. Overall it sets out to deliver just 18,000 ‘discounted rent’ homes per year, nationwide, ‘should economic conditions allow’. Even in the unlikely event that all of those are let at something like ‘social rent’, that is still barely a fraction of what is needed.

But it seems there is no time for evidence or perspective at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Tinkering with tiny sums for smaller and smaller amounts of ever less affordable ‘affordable’ housing during a pandemic and in the wake of an entirely avoidable national tragedy and disgrace upon the government in the form of Grenfell; the Secretary of State, if he is remembered at all, while be remembered as Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned.

After spending the summer months proposing yet another overhaul of the planning system, Robert Jenrick asks us to believe that progress on the Social Housing White Paper was suspended during the pandemic because he wanted “tenants in social housing [to] have the opportunity to hear and understand quite how significant this paper and the new changes that it will bring forward could be for them.” We hear you, Robert, loud and clear: social housing is at the very bottom of your to-do list.

To anyone who is looking, Coronavirus has shown how the quality of our housing is as fundamental to our ability to function as a society as the National Health Service. This government needs to show responsibility and leadership when it comes to social housing. In yet one more crucial respect, they are failing in their job to keep us safe.