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The Future of Social Housing – Is Newham’s answer THE answer?

Our special correspondent, Bill D’Amore, has been at the Chartered Institute of Housing Conference this week, and was moved to write this post.
The Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, spoke at Wednesday’s session of the Chartered Institute of Housing conference and set out his – and Newham’s – stall for social housing that builds resilience, aspiration and fairness for residents and communities. Sir Robin is one of Labour’s most outspoken politians calling for an end  to what he has called ‘the race to the bottom’. The social housing and benefit system has created a ghetto that makes the poor poorer and creates a culture of dependency, excluding people from work. Never avoiding controversy, Robin is a stalwart champion of his part of East London, and for what  his community needs:  robust access to employment, strong place-making, and prioritising social rented housing to those in work to “stop Newham’s revolving door”.
Robin’s position has been well known for some time, but he has courted particular interest because he tries to set out the socialist case for change – and a role for social housing that is, to some, not a million miles from Conservative boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster. He argues that  it isn’t – precisely because Newham has some of the most deprived communities in Britain that need stability and resilience, whereas other affluent Tory councils are actively excluding the poorest in areas where they work and live. Robin’s argument is both moral and economic. As he said: ”driving people out of rich areas seems to me to be just plain nuts”.
So far so plausible, to this party member, but as coalition policy starts to ramp up a vision for social housing as merely a short term  safety net ( as articulated on Wednesday by Matt Oakley from Policy Exchange)it’s important that Robin – and others – sharpen up their argument for a Labour housing policy that doesn’t just leave an open goal to the Tories. As I listened, three political challenges seemed imminent:
1) Some of us, Robin included, seem to have adopted the Tory narrative of the dependency culture, and invidious insinuations, denied by IDS but run week-in, week-out in the Mail and Express, that those in social housing are scroungers and the ‘feckless poor’.  I do not think Robin believes this, but we need a consistent challenge to this narrative – the Hill’s report did not draw this conclusion, and indeed other evidence suggests that the barriers to work are 80% circumstance / capability and 20% motivation, not the other way around. The third speaker on Wednesday, Diane Lee, tenant chair of Watford Community Housing Trust, gained the loudest applause of the session went she expressed just how much tenants resent this suggestion.
2) I am not sure Robin’s analysis does always lead to the need for social  lettings solely to those in work. As he says, the social tenants in Newham are the most stable, whilst it’s the private rented sector that sees the lowest standards and highest churn. What Newham, and places like it, may need is a far more robust set of tools to intervene in the private rented sector (PRS). What he can most readily influence is the easy option of his own lettings policy. To be fair, Robin does talk about the PRS, but only in terms of small pilots, and this part of the housing sector repeatedly never gets the attention in Labour policy that it ought to.
3) Most critically, Robin is always stuck within the localist position. If Newham can change its lettings policy to only allocate to working families, how can these flexibilities be denied to Hammersmith and Fulham? This is where we need the clearest thinking.  If ordinary working families are not to be driven into overcrowded slums or out of vast swathes of London and the South East, we need a policy that does not just help Newham, but all of the South East. The answer has to be one, or possibly both, of two possibilities:  in some way, a prescribed minimum tenure mix – a limit at the edge of localism however much local communities may squeal; or, some form of positive incentives to encourage genuinely mixed communities (and not merely the desultory bribe of the new homes bonus).
Neither of these will be simple, or uncontroversial, but our best advocates – like Sir Robin, and Labour’s national housing policy need to get passionately behind the reasons why we value mixed communities, whether of race, faith or economic circumstance, and a serious set of policy tools to achieve this. For Newham’s sake, and the rest of us.
Bill D’Amore.