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Housing on the agenda?

With both main political parties having finished their annual conferences, Polly Farman asks if social housing got a look in between the cheese and wine, five-star restaurants and political skulduggery.

On her appointment as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government this year, a key responsibility outlined to Ruth Kelly in the letter of appointment issued to her by Tony Blair was “…to underline our government’s commitment to social justice through policies to expand opportunity and tackle the most deep seated causes and symptoms of social exclusion. …”

Surely a primary area to be addressed is Britain’s social housing crisis and those socially excluded individuals suffering at the hands of it? Instead the recent Labour Party Conference held in Manchester seemed to highlight that those being affected are being fed confused information from an apparently conflicted government.

For the third consecutive year at the conference a significant cluster of constituency party branches called on the government to uphold a vote for a level playing field, or ‘fourth option’ as it has become commonly known, to give funding directly to councils to refurbish homes as an alternative to privatisation. Ministers attempted to get the motion withdrawn but 25 Constituency Labour Parties, supported by trade unions, insisted on a vote which went 2:1 against the government.

The furore surrounding this issue stems from increasingly more councils being forced to offload their housing stock by means of stock transfer to housing associations (HA), arms length management rganisations (ALMOs), or PFI, in order that the necessary investment to bring poor housing stock up to a decent standard is secured. Those against privatisation believe that this course of action will only serve to threaten their security, push up rents and charges, and weaken their say over an accountable landlord.

It seems the government are at loggerheads with their own contradictory policies – on the one hand, Labour have signalled plans to modernise outdated estates and encourage low cost home ownership as a matter of social importance. Reaffirming the Labour election manifesto commitment on decent homes came Kelly’s assurance at the conference: “We have got to build more homes, more social housing and more shared ownership as well as more private housing. By 2010 over 3.5 million homes will have been refurbished, millions more people across the country will be able to live in a decent, warm home with modern facilities.”

On the other hand, the government was forced to concede earlier this year that its aim to ensure all social housing met the decent homes standard by 2010 had slipped. Add to this Kelly’s decision to remain unsympathetic to giving local councils money to keep and modernise resident’s homes, regardless of the results of a series of ballots by local authorities (LA) held last year which clearly showed that the majority of tenants wanted to stay under LA control, and it is easy to understand why there is confusion within the ranks of power - let alone within the communities of the apparently socially important. The main problem that this uncertainty engenders is a wider division between owners and renters and the subsequent danger of stigmatising those who rent; if government assistance towards building and maintenance is given to owners then renters will inevitably appear second rate.

The Chartered Institute of Housing’s (CIH) response at the Labour Party Conference eschewed the fourth option debate completely, concentrating on a much more radical, but certainly more socially aware proposition entitled: What cost? Low cost housing. Merron Simpson, Head of Policy at the CIH outlined that there are obvious problems with existing affordable housing policy, a notable example being that tenants can afford rent but only just and at the expense of Britain’s economy as individuals’ disposable income is constantly raided by the constraints of a mortgage.

Simpson added that new services offered should be more focused on choice, fairness, and social mobility; essentially that a much more imaginative approach is needed, and a willingness for all government and housing providers to think differently about home ownership.

Rather than thinking in terms of how more tenants can be encouraged to become conventional home owners, Simpson encouraged the Government to stop thinking of how to get more people into home ownership and instead concentrate on how the benefits ownership can bring can be made available to the multitude as opposed to the minority:

“Government and housing providers should be searching for new options,” she said. “With only so much money to go round, the current low cost home ownership arrangement makes sure it goes in dollops to a few people while those who rent get no help to build assets.”

The opinion of the CIH is a clear sign that the pressure for a change in government policy in order to deliver further investment to existing council properties and estates and allow councils to build future generations of quality council homes has reached boiling point. The 2:1 vote is a clear indicator that the government’s repetitive response that current policy is set in stone and there will be no fourth option is now falling on deaf ears.

In an attempt to avoid the backlash from Labour’s third consecutive defeat on this issue, the National Executive Committee (NEC) clearly felt the strain and rushed a response to conference stating: “We recognise the decisions conference has taken on the issue of social housing…We believe that bringing all social housing up to decent standard is central to Labour’s Sustainable Communities agenda…In particular the group (the sub-group set up by the National Policy Forum) is exploring ways of creating a level playing field in the funding for social housing…we await its conclusions next year.” The timescale that this statement refers to therefore gives government ministers a matter of months to create an alternative policy that will be acceptable to tenants, trade unions, local councillors and MPs. Not an easy task.

“They’ve promised a report early next year,” said Austin Mitchell MP, chair, House of Commons Council Housing group. “If this is an attempt by government to manage the process of announcing a change in policy that secures the future of council housing then we have no difficulty giving them a few months. But the credibility of government, of housing ministers, and of the party will be destroyed if the sub group’s deliberations turn out to be a cynical attempt to kick the issue into the long grass.”

In the blue corner, the Conservative Party has placed the blame on the over-regulation of the private rented sector as the major contributor to the affordable housing crisis and The British Property Foundation (BPF) are in agreement. At a conference fringe meeting, Michael Gove MP explored the role of the private rented sector in tackling the housing supply problem arguing that housing provided by the private sector is essential to social mobility, which in turn is vital to the growth of the economy.

Gove stressed that the Government’s priority should be to increase housing supply as the current system delivers security but deprives individuals of the right to govern themselves and of individual responsibility. Ian Fletcher, BPF director for residential policy added: “We implore the government to adopt a more strategic approach…Different departments often give landlords conflicting signals about government intentions and it’s vital they adopt a coherent cross-departmental strategy for tackling the housing crisis.”

It appears conflicting signals about government intentions are the order of the day as far as the affordable housing debate is concerned. No government that claims to be listening can ignore both the consensus of three consecutive conferences and the collective opinion of the country’s policy makers, and certainly no government that disavows manifesto commitments can expect re-election. The ‘next phase of government’ oft referred to by Kelly, Brown and Blair places emphasis on the vision of homes creating strong cohesive communities, perhaps if the Government had a taste of its own cohesive medicine then this could be achieved.

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