In the 1980s Labour politicians did an excellent job in exposing Conservative Council Leader Dame Shirley Porter’s infamous ‘homes for votes scandal.’ And after many years of neglect, social housing is back on the agenda today.
Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is attempting to move the government on from the cladding scandal that surrounded the Grenfell Tower fire. He is trying to address the issue once and for all, following his predecessor, Robert Jenrick’s perceived failure to tackle the issue.
The Government published a Social Housing White Paper in November 2020, including a Social Housing Charter, which “sets out the actions the government will take to ensure that residents in social housing are safe, are listened to, live in good quality homes, and have access to redress when things go wrong.” But over a year later, there has been little movement.
Political tension has been heightened by ‘George Clarke’s Council House Scandal’ for Channel 4 and, more recently, by the excellent investigative journalism from ITV’s Dan Hewitt titled ‘Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame,’ which highlighted social housing tenants living in appalling conditions. It is hardly surprising that the cross-party Parliamentary Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee have just launched an inquiry into the subject.
Addressing these issues haven’t so far been a priority of this government. The pandemic has consumed so much of its time and energy, it’s only natural that some issues would be neglected. But this is an area where solutions are notoriously tricky.
Speaking from experience as a tenant, former councillor, MP, and member of this very Select Committee, I believe the solution requires a cultural change, rather than endless legislation.
Having rented from a housing association, I know only too well the obstacles facing tenants. These organisations can be bureaucratic, slow to respond to problems, and more interested in covering their own backs than serving their tenants.
This experience was recently reinforced for me when a friend, who lives in a London borough council house, had a leaking roof. The damage was so severe that the family had to relocate to a hotel for several weeks. Council and contractor surveyors came and went, yet little actual repair work had been completed by the time they were forced to return.
Eventually, they were transferred back to the hotel, as surveyors assessed the situation and repair work finally got underway. When they were finally moved back into their home, they found that the work was of such a poor quality much of it is going to have to be done again. Half a year in and what should have taken weeks is still ongoing and is far from complete.
If only this were the exception. Time as a local and national politician, with the casework those roles bring, has sadly taught me that social housing providers serve their own needs before those of their tenants.
Experience dealing with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) showed that their idea of tenant consultation was nothing more than a sham, while regulation in the sector was light touch, to say the least. Their unpopular and unnecessary proposal to demolish perfectly good housing at Seven Sisters flats is a case in point.
There was little appetite for the project, tenants wanted to remain, and local councillors have remained opposed. Yet, because senior RBH officers prioritised their vain ‘regeneration’ project above all else for years, millions of pounds have been wasted and tenants have been caused needless worry.
Since the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885, there have been umpteen related pieces of legislation passed regarding the issue. But you can pass as many laws as you like, the simple fact remains that until vested interests are tackled and poor performance properly addressed, the situation won’t change. And yet they desperately need to.
Labour have misdiagnosed social housing as a class war issue. This misses the point and does them an electoral disservice. Needless and unhelpful ideological rhetoric won’t help social housing tenants, who are supposed to be exactly the kind of core voters Labour is supposed to protect.
The social housing crisis isn’t an abstract idea for these people, it’s their daily lives. They know it’s really about a lack of organisational leadership, a failure of adequate checks and balances and incompetence going unchallenged within housing organisations across the country.
Labour avoids addressing these real problems around social housing because they fear the public sector unions and dare not risk alienating the middle class senior housing officers who now make up their new core voters. This lazy politics will ultimately backfire.
With Michael Gove, someone with a reputation for getting things done, supported by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, very ably chaired by Clive Betts MP, my prediction is that the social housing sector is finally going to get the change it so desperately needs.
The ‘homes for votes’ scandal destroyed Dame Shirley Porter’s political career. By playing politics with social housing, Labour is playing a dangerous game which could cost them dear.