“I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing – it just creates Labour voters.”
Nick Clegg doesn’t recall whether it was David Cameron or George Osborne who uttered these words.
But he knows it was one of them. Why? Because he was sitting across the table from them in one of the coalition’s “guad” meetings when this nugget of unguarded Tory honesty slipped out.
The former deputy prime minister is in no doubt that this represented the cynicism-drenched view of the Conservative leadership on social housing and its residents, going all the way back to Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy revolution in 1980.
Have things changed? Ministers, scarred by the eruption of anger over the treatment of social housing tenants and government housing policy in general in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, want us to think so.
“Regardless of whether you own your home or rent in the social sector, residents deserve security, dignity and the opportunities to build a better life,” says the communities secretary James Brokenshire.
The new green paper on social housing talks of “tackling stigma”, “empowering residents” and “ensuring homes are safe and decent”. All sorely needed. But then there’s the kicker: “expanding supply”.
What better way for the Conservatives to bury the perception that they secretly regard social housing tenants as Labour-voting deadbeats than by creating more of them? But will they? Despite colossal pent-up demand – more than a million households have been on social housing waiting lists for at least a decade – the coalition deliberately ran down construction rates of homes for social rent.
The Conservatives, governing alone, have carried on with the policy since 2015. Official figures show that just 5,380 new homes for social rent were created in 2016-17, down from around 40,000 in 2010-11.
Cameron and Osborne devised a new category of social housing called “affordable rent”, which essentially means subsidised housing that is more expensive for tenants without being quite as dear as open market rents. It was essentially an indirect means of reducing government funding for social housing (although it didn’t contribute to cutting the deficit because it simply meant tenants needed to claim more in housing benefit to pay their rent).
The supply of new affordable-rent homes rose from zero in 2010-11 to 24,350 in 2016-17. But even if one adds new affordable rent to new social rent the supply of subsidised rental housing is still around a third lower than it was six years ago.
Kit Malthouse is the new housing minister, the eighth in eight years. He admitted yesterday that the annual supply of new social rent housing by 2021 is not likely to rise above 12,500. Which is not terribly surprising given the government, despite many flashy pledges of new funding, has not announced any major additional grants for social landlords to enable them to ramp up construction.
And the Treasury is still resisting pleas to scrap the borrowing limit on local authorities, something needed to enable them to start building council housing in serious volumes again, as they did between the Second World War and the 1980s.
There is a vigorous debate taking place among economists over whether increasing national housing construction rates to 300,000 a year, as the government is targeting, will actually have a significant impact on house prices. But regardless of the impact on house prices, it’s clear that the UK needs more and better quality social housing, whether from housing associations or councils.
There are some 80,000 households in temporary private accommodation because councils cannot house them permanently, up 64 per cent since 2010. And those who have secured social housing are more likely to be overcrowded than they were a decade ago.
The numbers of families living in unsuitable private rented accommodation has shot up, as home ownership rates have collapsed. Many of them would be better off in social housing – and that is what hundreds of thousands of them say that they want.
Given that there are around 4 million subsidised rental homes, many of which will need to be replaced due to age, Malthouse’s pathetic projected levels of new supply are essentially a prescription for the sector to wither.
Words are cheap. Creating more social housing isn’t. Ministers will rightly be judged on what they actually deliver.