It can take years for a new home to go from concept to construction. We put down deep roots, we secure mortgages for 25 years, we rent or buy our forever home. But housing policy is made and remade every few years.
It’s time to take a longer view, to take control.
More than a roof over your head
The heart-wrenching scenes at Grenfell Tower has been a brutal reminder of the scale of the responsibility entrusted to housing associations and local authorities.
We do not just build affordable homes; we do not just invest in and work to strengthen communities; we do not just help people get into work or build a career. We do all these things – and it’s our job to keep people safe.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a sector respond to the tragedy with urgency and compassion.
Homes and housing officers were immediately made available, many travelled to London to volunteer and those further away gave what they could to various funds.
Meanwhile, right across the country, checks continue to be made on homes to make sure our residents were safe and protected, while housing teams reassure worried people.
This attitude is not new.
Over the years, as funding dried up, I’ve seen a sector continue to care and invest in their communities and residents. Continued to work hard to support those hit by waves of welfare reform.
I’ve seen a sector carry on building right through a recession, even as government grant fell by around 90%. Building affordable homes too.
While some are building homes for sale too, its not because they’ve stopped trying to make social rents stack up – it’s the opposite.
And, as residents’ expectations of us change, I’ve seen a sector begin a transformation from ‘traditional’ landlords to modern businesses, providing brilliant online services and pushing innovation in customer service and housebuilding.
I’ve not met a single person in social housing that doesn’t recognise the value of what we do – or passionately want to play their part in making even more of a positive impact in people’s everyday lives.
What we’ve achieved has been in spite of the world in which we work, often on the wrong side of both housing and welfare policy.
Government financial support has dwindled, our were rents cut. Residents have felt increasing pressure on their finances too – supported housing, benefits cap and LHA cap hits pensioners, families and the young. Employment has changed, it’s less secure, wages have stagnated and work benefits trimmed. Now inflation is starting to spike.
All the while we’re deep in a housing crisis, with demand for quality, affordable housing growing all the time.
We’ve known all this for years, but what happened at Grenfell Tower has brought the sector out of the shadows into the intense pressure from the media, the politicians and the public.
Our former housing minister, Gavin Barwell, is now Theresa May’s chief advisor.
We’ve been here before, with Benefits Street and the ‘curtain twitchers’ dogma, and later accused of not building enough.
But this time it’s different. We are, perhaps, at a crossroads.
The government that was supposed to last forever is wobbling. While the truth is more nuanced than the headlines, Labour’s revival has been based on a manifesto that stood for the many, not the few.
There’s talk, at last, of more support for schools and students, public sector workers like nurses and fire fighters.
There are opportunities ahead.
Theresa May, if she is to survive and rebuild a government, must begin to deliver on her vision of ‘social Conservatism’, with state intervention where it made sense to do so, that she promised when she first became leader.
There are a lot of people she described as ‘just about managing’ on the steps of 10 Downing Street who’ve not seen or heard her fighting for them as she promised – and they sent her a reminder on 8 June.
Housing associations are part of the solution – politically, socially and morally. We work with people and organisations right across our communities. We’re here for the long-term, far longer than any government can hold on to power.
So, now is the time to be clear and determined as a sector, have a clear ask and offer so we can deliver our ambition for thriving and sustainable communities.
My personal wishlist is below, others will have their views too:
- To uncouple housing from politics. We need a long-term, housing strategy for the country that allows us to build the range of homes we need.
- A sensible, open approach to land. Housing associations, local and national government and public/private sector working together can get better results.
- To invest in a range of housing (from social rent to shared ownership) as crucial national infrastructure, with 10-year+ programmes. With a broken market, social rent is simply the firmest base from which people on low incomes can achieve.
- To create pathways from homelessness to housing, with local authorities and housing associations co-creating solutions.
- The same for health care to home care, freeing up the NHS and helping people live independently as they get older.
- To join up welfare and housing policy. Just one example, but the benefit cap, the Local Housing Allowance and Shared Accommodation Rate will make people lose their homes, impact their lives and limit their futures.
- To ensure our regulator, which we need, retains a common sense approach, the power to intervene and calm nerves in a crisis (which I believe they currently do).
- To remake and set out that commitment to providing a service to our communities and our residents, to work together with them to improve where we live and work.
- To look again at standards – including design, environment and fire safety. It’s not about red tape; it’s about building homes people love, can afford to maintain, and keep them safe.
Let’s be clear. It’ll be difficult, but I don’t see a sector that’s shying away from the challenge.
Working in partnership with government, our local authority colleagues, residents and communities, the NHF and the CIH, we can put forward a sensible, long-term plan to end the housing crisis.
We have politicians and a public who are listening.