My take on what progressive housing policy could look like
The year is 2024 and the renaissance of social housing is well underway. Following ten years of Conservative-led government, when tenants were targeted as scapegoats for the 2008 financial crash, a progressive government came to power in 2020 with a mandate to reshape social housing.
Over the four years since the progressive government was elected, social housing has successfully been rebranded as community housing, controlled by tenants through community housing trusts. Tenants are now increasingly overseeing the remaining 3.5m social homes left after the extended Right-to-Buy, rent reductions, welfare reforms and never-ending austerity came close to signing social housing’s death warrant.
Looking back from 2024, it is difficult to see how waiting lists were allowed to grow to more than 7m people, homelessness was permitted to increase fivefold, how affordable housing completions rarely topped 20,000 annually and that two thirds of the 2020 £28bn housing benefit bill went into the pockets of private landlords; many of them letting recycled ‘RtBs’.
Former social housing is being progressively owned and managed by communities, with community housing trust boards elected by tenants, aided by independent board members with specialist expertise. Community housing trusts, enabled by the Housing and Community Empowerment Act 2021, are based on a non-profit, par value mutual model, where all tenants have a share in their homes and neighbourhood assets.
They are supported by experienced staff, who are also part of the mutual element of the community housing trust model pioneered by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. Staff are paid using a ‘John Lewis-style’ formula whereby the highest paid receives no more than twenty times the salary of the lowest paid.
This has defused a long-running controversy over housing association chief executive pay and enabled staff to have a greater say in the running of their housing organisations. And, since 2012, it has led to a burst of innovation from staff working closely with tenants and communities to improve lives and life chances.
Very few of the country’s 500 actual or embryonic community housing trusts control, or will control, more than 10,000 homes. The optimum size of a community housing trust, advocated by the progressive government’s ‘Saving Social Housing’ review while in Opposition, was 5,000 to 10,000 homes to keep trusts close to tenants while retaining sufficient financial clout.
The need for large, remote housing associations went out of the window since extensive asset bases were no longer required to raise private finance. They are currently being broken-up and their assets transferred to tenants. The financial viability of the new community housing trusts is being supported by transitional assistance through savings from the housing benefit bill.
Community housing trusts now receive funding for new homes through the national housing investment bank, also created by the 2021 Act, funded through the new Wealth Tax. Their local investment strategies are agreed with rejuvenated local authorities and the emergent regional governments, following ongoing transfer of power, revenue-raising and resource allocation to the English regions in the wake of the Regional and Local Government Act 2022.
Today, community housing is growing at a rate of 80,000 homes yearly with rents kept low. Tenants can now take advantage of a growing jobs market and the Real Living Wage.
Community housing trusts have also created a range of new neighbourhood facilities such as credit unions and food co-operatives. Most have created social investment funds that support jobs growth, tenant training and sustainable environments.
Yet perhaps the most important aspect of rebranding social housing has been that social tenants, now known as community residents, are less stereotyped by the media, have greater status and higher self-esteem and are more prosperous as part of the government’s push on equality.