“When she first came to power Theresa May promised to address Britain’s “burning injustices”. A few weeks ago, MPs were asked to quietly drop the phrase. Tied up in the complications of Brexit, the government has done very little to help the poor and disadvantaged – those who voted in protest against their own circumstances in the referendum. Neglecting this group has not helped past governments, and this one seems to be making the same mistake.
A new green paper on social housing seems unlikely to buck the trend. It recognises that there is a problem with social housing, but fails to recognise the nature of that problem: that there simply needs to be more of it. Instead, it talks about making social housing “fairer”, and “better quality”, and “challenging the stereotypes that exist about residents and their communities”. It says, rather patronisingly, that no social housing tenant should feel a “stigma” about their situation. That is not the pressing issue.
There are almost 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing. As they wait, people are forced to pay rent they cannot afford, and as a consequence they cannot afford to buy food. It is no coincidence that the use of food banks in Britain is soaring. But the government is doing little to help. Experts say we need between 70,000 and 90,000 new homes for social housing a year to meet the need in England. Last year fewer than 6,000 were built – a record low. And there are no new funds in the offing to increase supply.
Instead, the green paper concentrates on initiatives such as league tables for social landlords, which it says will “rebalance the landlord/tenant relationship”. But even this is unlikely to work. With such a short supply of social housing, landlords at the bottom of the league aren’t going to suffer from a lack of interest. Neither is it going to be easy for social tenants to flit between houses, depending on their ratings. And social landlords aren’t really a problem either, as these tend to be housing associations or local councils, and bound by professional codes and regulations. Much more dubious are the amateur landlords in the private sector – able to chuck tenants out on a whim – which is where people end up when they cannot get social housing.
This is not the first time the government has tried to distract from a funding crisis by introducing new league tables: it has done this with universities, and rail operators, and lately with nursing and midwifery. It’s an underhand technique – an attempt to shift attention off the government and on to the competition, and to show that the system is at least working for some. But it’s time it started to address the real problems – and for houses that means more building.”