When you’re losing in a game of chess, you try to end it with a stalemate: no one wins and no one loses. The game ends in a draw. The social housing system in the UK finds itself exactly in this position. The difference is that someone is losing: the scores of families stuck on a waiting list to get affordable accommodation.
Examples of safe and accessible social housing do exist in this country. There are instances where you get homes of the highest standards, such as the Goldsmith Green council estate in Norwich – which won the prestigious Riba Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2019. The project worked because it possessed two key ingredients: money poured into it, and enthusiastic political backing. In most circumstances, one or both of these components are lacking.
The issues have been the same for a decade: stigmatisation, postponed maintenance works, the pressing risk of cladding, to name a few. In response to these hurdles, the government has only responded with sticking plaster policies which tinker around the edges and make vague promises to build more homes, more safely.
People working in the social housing sector are doing their best with scarce resources. “I firmly believe that we need to restore council housing to where it used to be a part of the mainstream, where it wasn’t stigmatized”, says Glyn Robbins, a housing worker and campaigner. But bitter internal feuds are awash. The campaigners are at odds with the housing associations, who always scoop the prize.
They go to great lengths to appear to be “friendly and local” and not “massive businesses”, but campaigners resent them for having “millions of pounds in the bank”, according to Glyn.
Funding is front and center of social housing debates, and Glyn is right in saying that housing associations make big money out of it. But bickering over it only deepens divides. On top of that, there is little coordination between council housing management and housing associations. Both pit themselves against each other and fight like cats and dogs over their motives and ways.
Council housing providers scorn social housing associations because alongside their work with affordable homes, they manage private properties and have big stakes in the housing market – which is often not sympathetic to affordable housing. On the other hand, housing associations complain that council housing managers, with a lack of funds, fall back on principles and get little done.
Political will is an imperative. Whether councils put policy emphasis on social housing delivery targets or not depends on their political orientation. In cities like London, this creates a dividing line down between areas.
For example, there are areas such as Hackney or Islington where over half of the homes are social housing, according to Jamie Ratcliff, of the housing association Network Homes. But where there is less social housing, stigma within areas becomes a problem. Political appetite for social housing is scarce and sporadic. If we talk numbers, we’re still at pre-war levels of homes available. All relevant stakeholders seem frozen in an impasse, with either plenty of good will but no funds, or with megabucks but no intention to invest them in affordable housing. So where do we go from here?
Estate regeneration has a big part to play. “You have two elements here: one is accommodating the existing households who are there. The second one is maximising whatever is viable in terms of new affordable housing on top of that reprovision”, says Ben Kelway from planning and development consultancy Lichfields. Residents gain renewed flats tailored to their needs while the system improves in dividing the available space efficiently, countering overcrowding.
A second key step is filling all council homes available. Swelling privatization means that many council flats are now owned by private landlords, meaning they are at the mercy of the floating housing market, often unable to find renters. As a consequence, council flats remain empty for years, while thousands of people await to get affordable accommodation. Councils must start serious conversations about getting these spaces back when they’re left empty for too long.
And finally, we need to build more. New social homes need to be energy efficient, sustainable places where to live. Exactly like the new council estate in Norwich. To succeed, however, we need cooperation within the sector, seriousness from politicians and credible investments. It does sound like an odyssey. But with social housing, we can’t end in a draw: you don’t play chess with people’s lives instead of pawns.