Honesty and reality could help banish the ‘elephant in the room’

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie argues that honesty and reality are fundamental to fixing our broken housing market.

With the General Election just days away and political campaigning really hotting up, it has been pleasing to see agreement among the main parties that housing is an increasingly important issue.

But they must recognise it is also a complex, difficult issue – rather like that of social care – which raises questions around how we provide hugely expensive, quality social housing to meet demand which is potentially limitless.

I believe this is the ‘elephant in the room’ for our sector – what is the role of the state as a safety net and how far should the state’s control extend? Surely we also need to take into account the question of individual responsibility and the life choices people make.

In turn, this raises the matter of fairness. It is all very well politicians grabbing headlines by talking about the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in absolute terms, defined by a certain level of income. But how far that income goes will depend on a range of variables such as the cost of living in your area, how many dependants you are supporting and whether you are the sole breadwinner.

The fact is that, if your housing is subsidised so you pay a cheaper rent than market levels, your income will go a lot further. This means that social housing tenants are, to a degree, protected from the reality of rising housing and living costs, creating an artificial world which may promote unrealistic expectations in terms of the range of services provided for them.

So we have to ask questions about who should be entitled to social housing and for how long? For example, attachment to a particular area has again become an important factor for local authorities when deciding who should be eligible.

Honesty paves the way for reality
We can argue endlessly about what is fair but we must ask ourselves the fundamental question of how we ensure more people have access to a secure home and a settled existence, enabling them to feel they have a stake in society and can achieve what they want to achieve.

Our society needs to have a proper discussion around these issues – an informed debate that enables people to understand the consequences of making one decision or another, so that they do not wake up in a future which they ‘voted’ for but never intended.

Whilst democracy provides the platform for that debate, honesty from our politicians is essential to ensure the debate is informed by reality. For instance, politicians should de-couple links which generate public concern such as claims that welfare benefit costs are driven by social housing via rent setting, which is just not true.

Within this new environment of honesty and reality, housing associations should be allowed the freedom and flexibility to enable them to help government more effectively tackle the housing crisis. This could be achieved by letting us link rents to the quality of the property and what it costs to run.

Many housing associations are charities, therefore we are very conscious of the need for affordability for our customers – so we must also have the freedom to provide a wider range of properties at different pricings and to explore with government and the wider financial markets how housing wealth can be more widely accessed.

In addition, politicians need to be honest about what they expect in return for grant funding towards social housing. Of course housing associations should make the best use of their assets but simplistic solutions and conditions – such as building new homes and then having to sell them 15 years later – may not be the best approach.

Instead, such funding could be similar to an interest-free start-up loan which provides the capital to support development and then, after a set period of time, the recipient must demonstrate how they have generated further assets or return the money to government. However what works in one area and within one business model may not work in another, so flexibility remains key to the relationship between social housing and government.

Clearly, lack of supply is just one of the symptoms of our housing problems and not the full story. But bringing some of these realities into clear focus would enable more fundamental issues to be tackled that would make a significant difference to our broken housing market.