Social housing: a misguided debate


56% of the public support the construction of more social housing according to a Fabian Society report.* Senior Researcher Rob Tinker argues that’s a clear mandate for government action.

Rob Tinker

Rob Tinker is a Senior Researcher into social housing and the election at The Fabian Society, Britain’s oldest political think tank. Founded in 1884, the Society is at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left. Rob writes here in a personal capacity.

Rob Tinker

At a glance

In a Fabian Society poll, 93% of respondents said they believed there are problems with housing in Britain today and 87% thought that government could do something to address problems with the housing market.1 In my opinion that’s a clear mandate for the new Government to take action.

Supply side focus

Supply side action is urgently needed – building more, good quality social housing as part of a wider response to the UK’s housing crisis. Politicians often worry about how to ‘sell’ policies like this to the public. But what our research2 also found was that some of the challenges around public sentiment may be more perceived than real.

Fabian Society polling found that a majority of the public (56%) support more social housing being built and 44% would continue to support it in the area where they live. Only 15% said they would be opposed to more social housing.3 That suggests that marginal but vocal extremes are obscuring the UK’s housing debate.

Addressing the stigma

The social housing question is often seen as a risk for government because it is linked with emotive debates around social security and the benefits system. This stigmatisation of social housing tenants is a real concern: in the Fabian Society survey, over half of respondents (52%) agreed that people living in social housing were stigmatised because of it. And when people were asked what would make them more favourable to the idea of living in social housing, the most popular option was more discriminating eligibility criteria (41%).

One way that politicians have navigated these attitudes is to adopt new language – in recent years this has shifted away from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ housing. But this looks like a cosmetic fix. Unless this aspect of the debate is taken more seriously by politicians it could undermine the principled support for social housing which exists throughout the country.

Building attitudes

Stigmatising attitudes have been a long time in the making. As building rates have plummeted, the targeting of social housing on the least well off in society (sometimes called ‘residualisation’) may have exacerbated the process. A government commissioned analysis from 2007 found that in 1979 around 20% of households in the top decile of the income distribution lived in social housing.4 This fell to almost zero by the middle of the last decade. So the demographics of social housing have changed dramatically: in 1979 around one in five residents were high income earners; today the number is practically zero.

A worsening situation?

Following the election of a majority Conservative government in the House of Commons, the headline proposal around social housing involves an extension of ‘Right to Buy’ (RTB) to over a million housing association tenants.5 This would enable housing association tenants to buy their property at a similar discount to the one originally offered to council tenants.

This may be good politics; but there are also reasons to think it ignores the real challenge the country faces. At worse it could exacerbate the problems in the housing market. In the 1980s when the RTB policy was first launched, higher quality council properties were purchased, leaving poorer quality stock to be rented. So while the new Government’s RTB policy is likely to increase home ownership, as with the original policy, it does little to address the need for more social housing.6

Since the 1980s, the Government has relied on demand-side support for housing costs in the form of housing benefit instead of supply-side measures; namely, building more homes. Combined with a focus on promoting home ownership, these factors have made the social housing problem less visible – but they are no less real.

An untenable situation

We now face an untenable situation, with around 1.7 million households on local authority waiting lists, according to 2014 figures.7 The lack of affordable housing supply means there are many families living in accommodation which doesn't reflect their needs, with many relying on housing benefit to meet their housing costs.

Widening social divide

"Over time, if supply continues to fall short of demand (especially in the case of social rented properties where other socio-economic factors are in play) it will exacerbate inequalities within and between generations."

Continuing to ignore the issue will have massive social implications. More and more families will be forced into unaffordable, poor quality homes in the private rented sector. Studies show the negative impacts of this situation, especially on children’s life chances and wellbeing, are huge.

Over time, if supply continues to fall short of demand (especially in the case of social rented properties where other socio-economic factors are in play) it will exacerbate inequalities within and between generations.

A call for action

Increasing the quantity of homes is only the first step. Our research should help dispel the myth that people are intolerant of publicly-funded housebuilding, which has allowed politicians to dodge the very real issues surrounding the lack of appropriate social housing. The new Government has an opportunity to act, creating new high quality social homes to help encourage tenure mix and healthier communities, and begin to break down some of the stigma around the social rented sector.


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