The only thing I’m sure about is uncertainty

The social housing sector is at a crossroads with the lights stuck on red, thanks to a series of unfortunate, and now tragic, events.

We started with a government gleefully declaring war on red tape, culling regulators and regulation and simultaneously dismantling public services and the welfare state, including social housing. They pursued, with religious zeal, a dubious economic model based on austerity plus a mono-tenural housing policy that aspired to Lithuanian levels of homeownership.

An ideologically-odious narrative was peddled by the right-wing press, news and reality shows that vilified unaspirational social housing tenants and benefit recipients whilst casting housing associations as inefficient, fat cat oligarchies standing in the way of social mobility. The sector was punished with a 1% rent cut which wasn’t seen as an impediment to supply given the perceived financial slack available.

Then we had the Brexit vote. Doesn’t matter which way you jumped, there were a lot of unhappy bunnies suggesting a deepening social fragmentation. At least some of this was attributed to people being left behind by the political elite, globalisation, social inequality, austerity, being a bit thick (insert your personal favourite here – we’ve all got an opinion).

May made a big One Nation play to address the disaffection felt, funnily enough, in the kind of places that might benefit from a civilised level of public services, compassionate welfare state and social housing. Sadly, the government didn’t put money where her mouth was in the following Autumn Statement or Budget, possibly because many One Nation Tories are, in fact, dead.

We were going to have a hard Brexit though, as the people had spoken. Albeit incoherently, and unsure of what the question was exactly.

The Brexit bunting brought in an ill wind from Brussels. It was imperative, apparently, that the Prime Minister have a strong mandate to take on our foreign friends/foes. An election seemed a good idea, especially as May’s ratings appeared so strong.

The result suggested we didn’t want such a hard Brexit after all; a more consensual approach is needed. That’s what parliament requires too when you turn your majority into minority. (You’re allowed a little unpatriotic schadenfreude and weltschmerz at this point.)

Brexit always meant that the government (and most talented civil servants) would be tied up for years in a legislative programme almost entirely dedicated to it with the day-to-day business of running the country hardly getting a look in. That could well mean paralysis on critical issues like the Local Housing Allowance cap and the more flexible, multi-tenural expression of housing policy mooted by ex-Minister Gavin Barwell last autumn and picked up in this year’s White Paper. Add to this further uncertainty as the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Communities and Local Government jostle for position now that Number 10 is mortally wounded and has to relax its control freakery.

This is frustrating as the social housing sector had turned a corner in terms of its relationship with the government. So it’s likely to be a return to the Groundhog Day of politicians lamenting the housing crisis but never addressing it.

A hung parliament is likely to exacerbate this paralysis on any potentially contentious issues which generally include anything to do with social policy, such as housing. Better do nothing than risk the ignominy of being voted down.

But, ever the optimist, I hope that the tears in our social fabric, exposed by the two votes, result in some kind of cross-party social dividend.

Also on the bright side, Voluntary Right to Buy is likely to be kicked out of sight as the Queen’s Speech made no mention on the legislation required to fund it, forcing councils sell off their high value voids. Imagine how that Bill would play a hung parliament. And a decision on the rent settlement might still be reached around the autumn budget because it is so critical to the government’s supply aspirations.

The almost-unimaginable Grenfell Tower tragedy has been covered extensively by people better placed than me to comment. It will take some time to fully understand the contributory factors, what needs to be done and who is accountable. Ill-informed speculation and politicisation are already features of the aftermath, along with more positive coverage of heroism and the community response.

The implications are likely to be far-reaching for all social housing providers, not just in terms of new supply giving way to the needs of existing stock, but a renewed focus on the tenant, including listening and ensuring good service standards.

The enquiry findings may well represent the biggest threat the sector has faced to date, with enormous capacity for politicisation, scapegoating and misreporting. For some time to come, the sector, individually and collectively, will need to ensure malign and ill-informed “alternative facts” are pre-empted and addressed. It will also need to accept and quickly address those areas where improvement is required.

Grenfell is likely to have implications for regulation and legislation too. Customer standards, including Health and Safety, have been relegated to unpoliced consumer regulation. They might want to look at that again. Any resulting legislation is likely to displace other housing issues that might have been squeezed into the parliamentary timetable.

So, we’re stuck at a crossroads with no prospect of the lights changing any time soon. Thank goodness the sector is full of gnarly, resilient, pragmatic optimists who just keep on keeping on. Have a good summer!

About Steve Smedley

Steve is an Acuity associate and independent consultant. He is author of "Social Hearts and Business Heads" and his experience in Social Housing and enthusiasm for improving services has led him to become a leading thinker and practitioner in the sector.
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