Warmly welcomed and widely publicised, Shelter’s Vision for Social Housing is a thorough and authoritative call for a new political consensus that bold state investment in homes for rent for people on low and middle incomes makes sound financial, social and national sense and for such housing to be a source of pride. It left me with two main questions on my mind. One, will it sway the unconverted? Two, does its analysis hold as firmly for the distinctive circumstances of London as for elsewhere?
There are grounds for pessimism on the first point. Shelter stresses the cross-party representation among its 16 commissioners, but the few with Conservative credentials aren’t in their party’s mainstream. The latest Tory housing minister, Kit Malthouse, is a former Westminster councillor and member of Boris Johnson’s mayoral team who never struck me as a big enthusiast for reviving the post-war Labour-Tory contest to get the most council houses built. On the other hand, the government’s recent decision to lift the borrowing cap on local authorities – something Johnson supported, at least on paper, when at the helm of City Hall – might be a sign of hope that Brexit age Conservatism will be a bit more sympathetic. Labour, of course, is pledged to build masses of social homes, but don’t bank on the party in its present state ever forming a government.
And how might Shelter’s Vision be realised in the capital? Presentationally, it has a strong London focus. It takes Grenfell as its moral benchmark, describing issues raised in the disaster’s aftermath as providing context and inspiration for the commission’s work. Three of the commissioners have Grenfell connections. They include its chair, local Methodist minister Mike Long, and Edward Daffarn, a survivor of the fire and one of the two main authors of the Grenfell Action Group blog. Another commissioner, Faiza Shaheen, is director of the trade union funded think tank CLASS and the Corbynite Labour parliamentary candidate for Chingford.
The involvement of the latter two did not inspire confidence in the report when it was published. I don’t know Daffarn, he’s had a terrible experience and I wish him no harm. But his elevation, principally by the liberal media, to the status of community sage and far-sighted prophet in the North Kensington wilderness isn’t justified by reality. Shaheen once argued that housing in the UK should be reserved for UK taxpayers, because too much of it is owned by foreigners – the sort of crude populism we expect to hear from UKIP.
Fortunately, the text of the report itself is distinguished instead by the rigour and depth that makes Shelter such an invaluable organisation. Some of its most important passages have particular relevance to the capital, where homelessness is so damagingly high and the financial challenges of increasing the supply of social rented homes are compounded by the scarcity and high cost of land to build it on. “Both historical experience in the UK and the experiences of other countries with significant social housing programmes suggest that a revolution in social housebuilding should be underpinned by measures to allow public bodies to control the price of land,” the report says (page 94).
There are also strong sections on social mix and housing regeneration, two concepts that have come to arouse suspicion, and not without good reason. As the report rightly acknowledges, some studies have questioned whether fostering “mixed communities” of itself necessarily helps those members of them who face the biggest struggles in life. There are also examples of creating “mix” appearing to provide a rather bogus pretext for ill-judged estate demolitions. Nonetheless, the report concludes that social housing stock distributed across big cities is vital to combatting the kind of internal class balkanisation London has historically avoided (page 197).
On regeneration, sometimes the focus of highly politicised opposition when proposed for estates in London with high quantities of social rented homes, it recommends that residents “have a leading voice” in such projects, including by securing their “approval and support” by means of ballots (page 151) and that no loss of social housing numbers should occur. There is no recommendation for a heavy presumption against demolition or disavowal of the use of private capital to deliver regeneration schemes.
The importance of making more land available for housing of any kind in London and the moral dilemmas and difficult politics involved in doing so were well explained in a 2016 Shelter report, produced in conjunction with development consultants Quod. It spelled out that without redeveloping estates on council-owned land, building at higher densities and re-designating some Green Belt for building on, increasing overall supply to the sorts of levels the capital needs will be extremely difficult. Within this, delivering the proportion and quantity of social rented homes, whether by councils or housing associations, would be very hard without more financial support from the state.
To bear all those things in mind is to get a bit depressed about the prospects for Shelter’s social housing vision being realised. The document is, though, a solid blueprint for a policy approach that has a lot to recommend it, not least in seeking a major attitude shift away from the denigration of social housing tenants that has become such an ugly feature of British social attitudes in recent decades. Sign Shelter’s petition here and read the vision report via here.