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Can we build a property democracy?

By Sally Thomas, SFHA Chief Executive 

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At the beginning of 2019, once again, a well-researched, evidenced and argued report on the need for more social housing hit the headlines. The final report of the Shelter Commission on Social Housing made a call for investment in a 20-year housebuilding programme to provide 3.1 million social homes. A host of other recommendations make a coherent case for greater financial and political support from a UK government which, like its predecessors, has singularly failed to provide both for decades in England.

Scotland has been more fortunate. A combination of a more cohesive public alignment around fairness and equality, a cross-party political consensus on social justice and a current government putting its money where its mouth is has resulted in a current £3.2 billion five-year programme to provide 50,000 homes, 35,000 of which are affordable. Between 2007 and 2017, Scotland added 25% to its social housing stock compared to 19% in England.

The over-arching problem, however, is the same on both sides of the border. We focus on the money needed to provide more social homes without a clear idea of what a better housing system would look like. We make brave and bold arguments for social housing which we still contextualise within a system which is weighted against it – and is also changing fast.

Home-ownership in both Scotland and England now stands at around 62%, down from 71% in England in 2003 and a high of 66% in Scotland in 2005. The private rented sector has tripled since 1999 in Scotland and doubled in England, where it’s now the second largest tenure. In both countries, the number of people aged over 65 is set to increase by nearly 20% in the next 10 years.                  

The housing system in the UK is undergoing a fundamental shift and realignment. Much of this is indeed due to a lack of social homes, but there are other significant forces at play, including economic instability, aspirational shift and social change. In other words, we desperately need more homes. But, more fundamentally, we need a new system.

For SFHA members, this is a positive re-framing of the housing system through the lens of social justice. One that puts social housing on equal terms with all other options. Not as a last resort but part of the mainstream, along with private rent and home ownership.

This re-framing of the system recognises that the property ladder is a failing concept. For many, and an increasing number, it is no longer possible, or even desirable, to climb a ladder. 

What’s needed is a property democracy – a level playing field of housing options and choices, with tenure neutrality in standard and quality, public perception and access.  Social housing must be viewed as a positive and equal choice in a re-balanced and mature housing market, which delivers from generation to generation, according to need and aspiration, reinvesting the money in more homes.    

As organisations with social justice baked into what we do, social housing providers are perfectly placed to make this happen. We not only provide the best homes, we support the people who live in them and create great places. We understand the centrality of housing in meeting all other social policy objectives in other areas, including health and social care, child poverty, an ageing population, and employment and education – and we deliver on this. 

We do what other housing providers can’t – or don’t aspire to – not only providing a home but making a real, tangible and long-term difference to the people who live there and the places they live in.

All political parties in Scotland get this; there is political agreement on the value and importance of a good home for everyone. We are working with the Scottish government and other parties to make this a reality.    

And in both Scotland and England, this will require a number of pre-conditions in place to get us from a broken housing ladder to a level playing field.

We need sufficient, long-term government and private investment in social housing, including new financial models and instruments, in order to main affordability. Exploring new tenure models will also be critical to meeting changing needs and aspirations, and land reform is required in order to make it work for public good.

We also need a positive and constructive legislative and regulatory environment, and a welfare system that, in Amber Rudd’s recent words, is “fair and compassionate”. There must also be continued focus on the other social policy objectives to realise the more equal and fair society we all want.

There is much greater public and political support now than there has been for many, many years for a fairer housing system. We have a once in a generation opportunity to harness this and create a property democracy. And then the impressive work of the Shelter Commission has a real chance of resulting in the homes we need and the society we want.





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