On the social housing green paper

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time working with social housing tenants in the context of estate regeneration, a very specific and challenging area of housing and one where strong relationships between tenants and their housing provider is of vital importance.  My conversations with tenants about the impact of regeneration and development get to the very core of what people want, need and feel about their home. This review of the social housing green paper is very much informed by those conversations.

Valuing social housing tenants
The current (and long-standing) ideological stance on social housing is that it is there to address welfare need rather than being, as it was in the beginning, a basic right. This story says to the tenant: “You are doing life wrong. You shouldn’t need social housing. Pull yourself together”. It says to those who have a mortgage, or even to private renters: “People in social housing are needy, dependent and less than you”. This is the presiding narrative of welfare dependency.

Despite the fact that anyone can apply to live in social housing, it is this view of social housing as a last (and, nowadays, increasingly short term), resort for the needy that leads to stigma and feelings of failure. And the ongoing lack of social housing for anyone other than those most in need only increases that stigma, as those in the most urgent need of it are more likely to have life challenges which require some sort of support, be it financial, emotional or physical.

We are taught to value success, achievement and (to some extent) stability; as such, those who are less successful, who have achieved less, or whose circumstances are unstable are in turn valued less. If the height of housing success is to own a home, having overcome all the risks, difficulties and financial stresses associated with getting to that stage, then there will always be less value given to those who have yet to make it up that often very steep hill, let alone to those who do not aspire to climbing it at all.

There are two obvious ways to increase the perceived value of and reduce the stigma associated with those living in social housing: end the British obsession with home ownership, and build enough social housing for everyone who chooses that particular tenure. As this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, an interim approach might involve finding ways to divert attention from an individual’s housing circumstances and use different measures of success and achievement. The ‘See the Person’ campaign highlighted in the green paper is an example of “sharing positive stories” to challenge perceptions of social housing tenants, and that is a step in the right direction, at least. But it is still an intensely individualist approach to the question of community.

A better approach would be to invest in social infrastructure: by supporting social housing tenants and providing opportunities and resources for collective activities and socialisation, it would rapidly become so obvious that social housing tenants are already members of strong, successful communities that expensive and patronising advertising campaigns would be unnecessary.

Grow your own
The green paper says:

“We want the stories told about social housing to reflect the experiences of residents and the contribution they make to their communities and wider society. If we can do that, we can begin to tackle the stigma faced by many of the 3.9 million households living in social housing.”

However, the way to do this isn’t by providing “…funding for an event or a street party to bring people together across housing tenures and generate a sense of pride.”  As social housing tenant Dawn Tibble  puts it:

“Celebrating communities has to go further than a reward system for ‘best neighbourhoods’. “The ‘be good and get a party’ scheme is a tad like ‘if you are good you’ll get a sweetie at the end of the day”.

And here we get to the one of the problems associated with considering housing in isolation: it misses the complexity of what it means to live in, and to belong to, a place. It fails to acknowledge the importance of infrastructure.

The majority of us tend not to get too excited about infrastructure – but our entire lives are underpinned by it. I’m not just talking about economic infrastructure – energy, transport, water, waste and, communications, too. This is also about social infrastructure.  Social infrastructure is “[a] long-term asset that supports social action, volunteering, co-operation and social enterprise”; social infrastructures support and nurture the social relationships in a community.  As Dan Gregory in his paper “Skittled Out” has said, “these are the places and structures and buildings or clubs that enable people to get together, meet, socialise, volunteer and co-operate”. Without this social infrastructure there is no community; without social infrastructure, there is no meaningful concept of neighbourhood other than the geographic.

In helping organisations work with residents to regenerate estates I have seen, over and over again, the mismatch between what communities are asking for and what landlords can viably provide. It is the lack of social infrastructure (and the inability to fund such) which most frustrates not only residents, but registered providers and councils alike.

If Government want more positive stories to be told about social housing and social housing tenants, then Government needs to look at what it can do more easily and effectively than anyone else: invest in infrastructure. What is also vital and currently lacking is investment in community connectors and animators who are essential for helping often disparate and competing community groups to collaborate, to share assets and to develop strong social networks.

Merely providing social infrastructure won’t create positive tenant stories, – but it will provide the structure on which communities can build cohesion and resilience, and foster the conditions for good growth. It may even help communities reach a stage of maturity which enables them to develop community-led housing. Who knows – maybe they’ll even raise enough money for their own street party.

“You can do it online”: The digital divide
So moving on to a considerable omission in the green paper…

One of the key aims of the green paper “…concerns empowering residents and making sure their voices are heard. This will drive better services and ensure residents have more choice and control.”  If we are talking about residents’ voices then we cannot possibly ignore the subject communication.

My advice? Forget “league tables” and think instead about how residents communicate with their landlords in the first place.

As with Government agencies, social housing providers can clearly see the value of online communication. It is much much cheaper than printed media. Unlike an expensive human being at the end of the phone, online information can be accessed by tenants at any time. And so, online communication is the preferred first method for many landlords. However digital inclusion appears to be a low priority for many landlords. In Leeds, where there is a real commitment to digital inclusion, 38% of social housing tenants do not have any access to the internet.

The need to increase digital inclusivity in social housing is a topic which warrants, and to some extent has already had, far more attention than this cursory nod. It is not a subject that will, or should, go away. But exploring it further here will remove your attention from what I believe is the fundamental problem with the social housing green paper. And that is one of social housing ideology.

If there really is a desire on the part of Government to “tackle the stigma which for too long has been associated with social housing”, as stated in the executive summary and throughout the paper, then it needs to understand the intensely negative impact the narrative of social housing as “merely housing for the poor” has not only on its tenants but on those it is blaming for the stigma it wishes to remove.

Helen Nicol, Director of Blue Chula