The Social Housing Commission (the Commission) is an independent cross-party body which was set up by housing charity Shelter. On 08 January 2019 the Commission returned a year’s worth of findings in the form of a report entitled ‘Building for our future: A vision for social housing’ which aims to bolster tenants’ rights in the wake of the Grenfell Fire disaster.
Click here to view the report.
When 72 people were killed at Grenfell, there were widespread reports of a broken culture of regulation, reporting of hazards and tenants’ interests being side-lined. The Commissioners, including former Labour leader Ed Miliband and former Conservative party chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi hope that a ‘decisive generation shift in housing policy’ will be what is required to address the ‘housing crisis’ currently facing the sector.
The primary driver of the Report’s vision is the proposed building of more social housing in the next 20 years. This would achieve 3.1m new social homes by 2040 for 3 groups of vulnerable renters: the homeless, younger trapped renters, and older renters. This figure is based on the Commission’s calculation of the number of households who will be failed by the current market conditions over the next 20 years.
This recognition of the varying needs of residents challenges the Government’s current stance on social housing as merely either a safety net or a route to home ownership. The Government has, however, stressed that the launch of its £9bn affordable homes programme will meet the demand – communities secretary James Brokenshire said that “providing quality and fair social housing is a priority for this government, and our social housing green paper seeks to ensure it can both support social mobility and be a stable base that supports people when they need it”.
The Commission also recommend that existing social housing stock that has been sold-off is replaced, in a bid to increase the sustainability of Right-to-Buy schemes.
The Report proposes that a new consumer regulator is established ‘to protect renters and ensure their voices are heard’. This regulator would set and enforce more specific minimum standards for RPs on the safety and quality of homes.
Reforms would also help to reduce the barriers to complaining, such as the ‘serious detriment’ test which sets the standard for when the current Regulator of Social Housing (which focuses on economic matters) should intervene in a dispute between landlord and tenant.
Elsewhere, the Commission proposes that tenants have more authority on the day-to-day running of their housing, for example by giving residents a voice when it comes to renovations.
Proposals to substantively change laws include the removal of Section 106 exemptions on certain new developments and conversions, and reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961 Section 14 and 17 to prevent prospective planning permission artificially inflating the cost of land which has been designated for housing.
The Government currently spends £21bn annually on housing benefit. The Report states savings to this bill could be achieved by getting more people into social housing paying lower rents. This is supported by analysis done by Capital Economics which predicts that two-thirds of the cost of supplying the extra housing called for in the Report could be offset by the savings from housing benefit and an increase in tax revenue.
The Report claims that the construction industry could be given a boost by the influx of building, and the associated tax receipts that the new houses would generate would help the economy more generally.
The economic boost of building is cited as a way to pay for the cost of the increase by some, however, the report recommends a rise in the rate of building higher than that seen in the two decades following the end of the second world war. As idealistic as this is, this surely raises questions as to whether the industry could be prepared for such an increase; with reports from house builders citing a range of factors that constrain the market at present, such as a lack of materials and skilled labour.
In summary, despite these specific proposed changes, the Report aims to go deeper regarding the perception of social housing itself. The report highlights similar themes touched upon in the Government’s Social Housing Green Paper which stated that societal changes in attitude are needed if the industry is to provide for the future. Commissioner and campaigner Doreen Lawrence spoke in the report about how people in power do not “understand what this experience [being a social tenant] is like’, adding that ‘the case for investing in social housing is overwhelming’.