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Six Ways to Spark a Housing Revolution

Six ways to spark a housing revolution, ‘An article by Sally Thomas’.

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For the past two years, the UK prime minister of a Conservative government has talked up social housing.

Theresa May has said it “shouldn’t be” that there is a “stigma” around social housing and that residents are not “second-rate citizens”. More recently, she declared that social housing has become a “victim of the single-minded drive for homeownership”.

While many of us couldn’t agree more, we have yet to see the action required to convince us she means it. And, with a change of leadership, will it mean anything at all?

One hundred years ago, minister for health and housing Lord Christopher Addison meant it. He was instrumental in passing into law the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919, paving the way for large-scale council housing and government intervention in the housing system.

This, and further legislation in 1924 and 1946, initiated and sustained a revolution in housing for everyone, not simply ‘the poor’.

We need nothing less now. As then, we need to change the housing system in order to provide the homes needed and at the scale required. Recognising now, as then, the economic, social and cultural forces at play that are influencing our housing system whether we like it or not.

And to which we can either continually react and respond or control and create.

A six-point plan for doing this could be:

  • A long-term approach – which treats housing in the same way as infrastructure, to be planned and delivered above and beyond electoral cycles
  • Housing as a human right – which acknowledges that a home is a basic human right and not a commodity disconnected from its social function – as the UN says, it should be somewhere “to live in security, peace and dignity”
  • A social justice framing – one that combats stigma and stops social housing being viewed as a last resort option
  • People first – doing more to shift the focus onto the person rather than the property
  • Permanent and substantive government investment – to plan strategically for all ages and stages, keep standards high and costs affordable
  • New thinking and innovation – in construction, services and technology

As organisations with social purpose baked into what we do, social housing providers are perfectly placed to play a central role in a reframed housing system.

Not only do housing associations provide some of the best-quality, most affordable homes but they also support the people who live in them.

Social landlords’ work create great neighbourhoods and help the government to meet other social, economic and environmental policy objectives – including health and social care, employment, tackling poverty and climate change.

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

Not long after the Addison Act, MP Noel Skelton coined the term “property-owning democracy”, which has come to embody personal choice, control and the primacy of individual asset accumulation.

Its roots have since dug deep into the British psyche to the extent that we now see homeownership as the holy grail, with social and private renting as second best – this is no longer sustainable or sensible or socially desirable.

We can, and should, aspire to a property democracy – a rebalanced and mature housing system that presents the different housing options as equal, with tenure neutrality in standard, quality and public perception.

A hundred years on from the Addison Act, we need a new vision for housing. One that, once again, takes a system-wide approach based on collective endeavour and attitudinal change.

In 1919, the country was spurred on by “homes fit for heroes” – we need homes fit for all.

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