Government needs to rethink plans to tackle the current housing crisis
On 31st July I read the welcome news that the Right To Buy scheme had been ended in Scotland, a move that was applauded by the Scottish Federation of Housing Federations among others, given the shortage of social housing it had created. Unfortunately, the social housing fire sale is continuing apace elsewhere in the UK, where there is a housing crisis that is probably worse now than at any time in the past 50 years.
On the same day as that welcome news from Scotland, the BBC once again broadcast the classic Ken Loach-directed play, Cathy Come Home, which had attracted 12 million viewers when first shown on 16th November 1966 (unthinkable now, that a TV play could do that). This had a huge impact on a public that until recently had been fed the line that they’d never had it so good, but that during the 1960s were ‘rediscovering’ poverty, due to the work of social workers alongside academics and others (I learned a lot about the important role of social workers in this respect at an excellent Social Work History Network seminar last year on the origins of the Child Poverty Action Group, founded almost exactly a year before Cathy Come Home was shown).
We could do with a Cathy Come Home right now, to inform the British public once again of the terrible struggle faced by so many people in keeping a roof over their heads, or finding one of their own in the first place – now that I say that, when’s Ken Loach’s Cannes prize winning film, I, Daniel Blake, on general release? It really can’t come a moment too soon.
In the meantime, I was pleased to be a co-signatory of a letter published recently in the Guardian (see below), which calls on the government to think again about the Housing and Planning Act passed earlier this year, which promises to make the housing crisis worse. It extends right-to-buy to housing association tenants and will pressurise councils into selling-off their ‘high value’ homes when they become empty. There is a real fear that this will lead inexorably to a further decrease in available social housing and from there to ever-increasing homelessness. The Chartered Institute of Housing predicts that 350,000 social rented homes could be lost by 2020, with inevitable consequences for those in housing need and working in the public sector.
A further concern is that social housing tenants will be hit by massive rent rises. If this is the case, then evictions are likely to follow, and social workers will be all too well aware that this will lead to some families with dependent children being rehoused elsewhere in the country, with all the isolation and loss of support this will entail.
What can we do as social workers in the face of this housing crisis and shortage of decent homes for the people we work with to live in? To return to my previous blog post, it has to be more than remedial work with individual families or vulnerable adults in housing difficulties – crucial though individual support and advocacy is. Social workers were fully involved in the development of the Child Poverty Action Group and we need to find ways now both to campaign ourselves and also to empower our service users to do so. There are some wonderful organisations such as ATD Fourth World, which empowers service users to speak out about poverty, and at the very least we can get to know such organisations so that we can tell our service users about them. A glance at the organisations who were the co-signatories of the Guardian letter (see below) suggests others, for example, tenants associations, claimants unions and church groups.
Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity has been created with this in mind. One of our next steps will be to develop a website, which can be used to share stories, not only of the impact of austerity policies and measures that deepen the housing crisis, but of how social workers are joining with service users to combat these. It can also be a resource to social workers by including details of groups that are campaigning around the country.
A final, slightly separate note – I see that much of the detail of the Housing and Planning Act is still to be set out in secondary legislation. I don’t know how reasonable this is in this particular case, but I know that concerns have been expressed by the amount of powers to be delegated to ministers via secondary legislation proposed by the Children and Social Work Bill currently going through Parliament. One of the effects of this is to hinder proper scrutiny of the bill, given the absence of detail being put in front of MPs. The concern about the power that this appears to give ministers is of course exacerbated in the case of the social work bill by the proposal for a social work regulatory body controlled by the Secretary of State.
 Abel-Smith, B. and Townsend, P. (1965) The Poor and the Poorest. Occasional Papers on Social Administration, No. 17. London: G. Bell & Sons.
Letter to the Guardian (14 August 2016)
The Housing and Planning Act is due to return to parliament after the summer recess. This will provide a second chance for our politicians to demand the government think again about this ill-conceived, damaging, divisive and unworkable legislation. We are deeply concerned the act will make the housing crisis worse. The Chartered Institute of Housing has warned that 350,000 social rented homes could be lost. Council and housing association tenants would suffer massive rent rises, a tenants’ tax that penalises those on moderate incomes. New tenants, some of them vulnerable, could be denied the security of a permanent home.
Family life will suffer as people are priced out of their neighbourhoods and the vital networks that nurture community cohesion are strained to breaking point. The government argues that new “affordable” housing will be provided by so-called “starter homes”, costing up to £450,000, but these will be unaffordable to many of those who are now consigned to the exorbitant private rented sector which the act does little to tame.
We need a Housing Act that meets the needs of millions, not only the few, and offers a genuinely sustainable alternative to the endemic uncertainty of the housing market. In her first speech as PM, Theresa May talked of leading a government for the many that will give people control over their lives. That must include controlled rents and decent homes for all.
Eileen Short Defend Council Housing,
Jan Sweeney Axe the Housing Act,
Ann Best Wolverhampton Federation of Tenants’ Associations,
Rt Rev Adrian Newman Bishop of Stepney,
Betsy Dillner Generation Rent, Gail Cartmail Unite the Union,
Guy Shennan British Association of Social Workers,
Diane Montgomery Living Rent Campaign, Brighton,
Cllr Kevin Price Cambridge City Council,
Giuseppina Salamone CASE.