DISPOSSESSION: The Great SOCIAL HOUSING Swindle

The biggest domestic challenge of our generation requires radical action, Paul Sng argues.

For some people, a housing crisis means being denied planning permission for a loft conversion. For others, including a million plus people on the housing waiting list and an estimated 300,000 homeless people it means, quite simply, the inability to find an affordable home. (By ‘affordable’, I mean a third of a person’s income, not 80% of the market rate.)

“Solving the housing crisis is the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation,” announced Theresa May at the last Conservative Party conference. She’s right, of course. Unfortunately, her solutions don’t go far enough; they’re neither ambitious nor radical enough to provide the 300,000 homes needed each year to meet the demand.

May has pledged £2 billion for housing associations (who aren’t short of a few quid – the sector reported a surplus of £3.5 billion in 2017), yet this wouldn’t kick in until 2022 and would be spread across six years. She also committed to lifting the borrowing cap for councils, which drew loud praise from many in the housing sector, though it’s a bit late in the day, considering the extent to which the Right to Buy policy has decimated council housing stock since it was introduced in 1980. May’s attempts to repair the damage are a bit like putting a couple of plasters on a gunshot wound.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party was critical of the Prime Minister’s plans, with Shadow Housing Minister John Healey declaring: “If Conservative ministers are serious about fixing the housing crisis they should back Labour’s plans to build a million genuinely affordable homes, including the biggest council house-building programme for over 30 years.” Yet, in London it’s Labour-run councils that are responsible for allowing dozens of estates to fall into disrepair, through a process of managed decline, before working in cahoots with property developers to ‘regenerate’ estates with new homes that are unaffordable for the vast majority of previous tenants.

My documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, covers this in detail.

Councils argue that their budgets have been cut to the bone by central government, which forces them into what some housing campaigners view as nefarious arrangements with developers. The case of the Heygate estate is a prime example. But council rents and service charges to leaseholders are meant to be ring-fenced: the money should be allocated to repairs and maintenance of people’s homes.

Radical solutions are needed to fix the housing crisis. Let’s start by re-introducing rent controls and suspending Right to Buy until levels of council housing stock are replenished. And, as long as there isn’t a sufficient number of social rent homes, we should use existing empty properties by placing a higher tax levy on buildings that are left vacant for more than 12 months, or the option to allow premises to be used to temporarily house homeless people.

What can those in the housing sector do, other than building more homes? Greater support for grassroots housing campaigns such as Focus E15,RadicalHousing Network and Save Cressingham Gardens would help.

And cutting back on self-congratulation by reducing the number of housing award ceremonies wouldn’t go amiss either.

Paul Sng is a writer and filmmaker based in Edinburgh. His book, Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is available now.