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11 years that changed the face of social housing

Posted: 18/05/2021

As markers in time go, 11 years isn’t a classic demarcation. However, after an important decade plus one of the most tumultuous years in many of our lifetimes, a retrospective over the past 11 years seems permissible.

It’s been 11 years since the ‘Cameron-Clegg’ coalition was formed and a couple of days since the final results of the 2021 local elections trickled in. Since Labour conceded to the coalition in 2010, there have been ten Housing Ministers, two referendums and a whole raft of housing policy changes coupled with Brexit, a global pandemic and a tragedy which shook the sector. By looking at what has come to pass during that time, we can attempt to determine what is on the horizon of a very different landscape to 11 years ago.

Housing policy

In 2010 the country was emerging from the financial crisis of 2008 and 11 years later we are tentatively emerging from the global Covid crisis. At each point, housing has proved to be critically important and, despite more than a decade having passed, the housing crisis lives on.

Over that period, housing policy, and affordable housing policy in particular, has seen social housing providers having to roll with the punches, whether that be political, economic or global pandemic related. There’s not been a dull moment, to put it politely.

Housing policy changes have been vast and varied and it’s not possible to give each the consideration they require. Conservative ideology has, of course, had an impact here with policies linked to home ownership and changes to the welfare system being prevalent. Briefly, some of the key changes include:

  • Voluntary right to buy (VRTB):
    • Building on the Thatcher legacy, ahead of the 2015 general election, David Cameron announced the intention to extend the Right to Buy to all housing associations. The implementation of a VRTB scheme is yet to be finalised and pilots have concluded that portability and one-for-one replacements were the most challenging part of the process.
  • Shared ownership changes;
    • the new shared ownership model will permit residents to purchase as little as a 10% stake in their properties, then continue to staircase in increments as small as 1%, as well as passing repairs liability to landlords for the initial 10-year period.
  • Welfare reform:
    • universal credit has been gradually rolled out across the country and is due to complete in September 2026 (9 years later than originally planned). The system has been described as ‘flawed’ and has seen an increase in rent arrears for some providers, particularly over the last 12 months.

Broader Government policies, such as Brexit and decarbonisation, have also impacted on the housing sector. Environmental, social and governance matters have steadily moved up the list of priorities for housing associations following the introduction of the UK’s legally binding target to produce zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is accompanied by the need to source additional funding to help solve the current housing crisis by providing, maintaining and improving high-quality affordable housing.

A changeable relationship

The sector’s relationship with the Government has had its ups and downs over this time. There have been moments of hope, such as the recognition of the valuable role social housing providers have to play in the Green and White social housing papers and the new funding for social housing announced by Theresa May in 2018. However, there have been real difficulties with one being the social housing rent cut announcement in 2015. The unexpected announcement had wide-reaching consequences for the sector and housing providers’ business plans. As a result, many housing associations made cuts to some of the “nice to haves”, particularly wider services beyond core activity and resident engagement budgets. The rent cuts also, to an extent, galvanised the “commercialisation” of the sector as housing associations pursued other more commercial routes in order to maintain cash flows.

The second major change during 2015 – 2018 came in April 2017, when the Government’s ‘deregulatory measures’ under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 came into force giving registered providers greater freedoms than before. This was in direct response to the decision of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to reclassify housing associations as public finance bodies and the Government’s desire to reverse that decision, which the ONS did in November 2017.

The new Value for Money standard was introduced in April 2018. It came off the back of housing associations being seen as inefficient by the Government. Since implementation providers have been required to articulate and deliver a comprehensive and strategic approach to achieving value for money in meeting their organisation’s objectives.

A wake-up call

The sector’s operating environment took a tragic turn in the summer of 2017, when Grenfell happened. Sadly, as with most things, it takes something terrible happening for action and change to gain the traction it needs. Grenfell shone a light on some of the horrible inequalities that exist in our society, as well as issues with the building and fire safety regimes that allowed those accountable for fire safety and building maintenance to fail. The most uncomfortable truth to come out of Grenfell was the real stigma associated with some residents of social housing; 72 died people died that night and there was evidence that tenants had raised concerns about the safety of the building for years and it had fallen on deaf ears.

Nearly four years later and the Grenfell Tower inquiry continues with shocking revelations almost daily. Rightly, Grenfell crystallised some hard truths and has shaped the direction of political travel in relation to housing since. We’ve subsequently seen the Social Housing Green Paper (August 2018) and, most recently, the Social Housing White Paper (November 2020) (the White Paper). At its heart, the White Paper is a charter to residents and proposes some significant changes to the ‘consumer’ regulation regime as well as redressing the imbalance between landlords and their residents.

2021 Local Elections

Traditionally, local elections don’t carry the same build-up or excitement of a general election. However, 2021’s local elections were the first real test of the public’s reaction to the Government’s management of the pandemic. Andy Burnham, in particular, rode the waves of public support he garnered over the lockdowns, being dubbed the ‘King of the North’ after his stirring speech announcing that Manchester deserved more financial support from Westminster during the pandemic and securing 67.3% of the vote on the 6th May. Devolution deals have also increased the importance of local, as well as national, housing policy.

To create a picture of what we could expect in terms of future housing policy, it’s worth taking a look at the key policies of some of the most high-profile re-elected leaders.

Andy Burnham, (Labour, Manchester):

  • the continuation of ‘A Bed Every Night’ scheme for the homeless;
  • increasing the supply of new homes in the region, with a particular focus on homes for social rent;
  • a plan for how, where and when the 50,000 homes he committed to delivering by 2057 (30,000 of which would be for social rent) is due to be released imminently; and
  • creating ‘The Good Landlord’s charter’ in partnership with ten Greater Manchester councils which will aim to improve protection for tenants.

Sadiq Khan (Labour, London):

  • spending more than half of his 2021 – 2026 Affordable Homes Programme funding on homes for social rent;
  • delivering 10,000 new council homes;
  • setting up a ‘Right to Buy Back’ scheme which would help to fund local authorities re-purchasing homes previously sold through the Right to Buy;
  • setting up a new City Hall-owned developer aimed at boosting affordable housebuilding in the capital; and
  • providing 1,000 new long-term homes for rough sleepers.

Andy Street (Conservative, West Midlands):

  • developing a regional plan that will aim to build at least 215,000 homes across the region by 2031;
  • building ‘thousands’ of new homes for social rent through the West Midlands Affordable Housing Collaborative Development Vehicle;
  • a brownfield-first policy to ensure homes are being built in these areas;
  • seeking to agree a funding deal from the government’s £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme to fund new affordable homebuilding; and
  • rolling out the ‘Help to Own’ scheme.

What’s that coming over the hill?

As with anything in life, never mind housing, we can never be sure what’s ahead of us. However, we do know that the world may well be very different again in another 11 years.

The social housing sector’s relationship with the Government is at an interesting point. The Grenfell inquiry rumbles on and the proposed reform of the consumer regulation regime leaves providers in a state of flux while they are still managing the impacts of the pandemic and Brexit on operations, residents and the workforce.

Whilst this article has focussed on England, Nicola Sturgeon’s and the SNP’s success in the parliamentary elections sees a further Scottish Independence referendum proposed. Indicators are that we may no longer be the ‘United Kingdom’ in the next decade.

As the pendulum swings back towards resident engagement, providers should feel empowered to forge the way forward, walking alongside residents as they look to shape what best practice looks like in relation to a reformed consumer regulation regime.

Finally, as the newly elected or re-elected candidates settle down, now is the time to hold them to account on their manifesto promises. The need for affordable housing has never been more acute and, regardless of where we find the world in another 11 years’ time, let’s take real leaps forward when it comes to providing secure homes to the most vulnerable in our society.


First published in Housing Executive on May 12.

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