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Recovery and social housing: Why affordable homes need to be at the heart of the economic recovery from COVID-19

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As the effects of the ongoing housing crisis continue to be exacerbated by COVID-19, Laura Cunliffe-Hall explores why more social housing is needed for communities to thrive.

Two years ago (in 2018), the government published its social housing Green Paper,[1] complete with a foreword from then Prime Minister Theresa May, committing to work with local councils and housing associations to “provide a new deal for social housing”.

The 2018 social housing Green Paper focused on the need for expanding supply and supporting home ownership; effective resolution of complaints; empowering residents and strengthening communities; and ensuring homes were safe and decent.

Since then, however, we have seen little of these promised reforms on social housing, with a long-awaited follow-up White Paper due for publication in the autumn set to outline government’s plans for “greater redress, better regulation and improving the quality of social housing for tenants”.[2] The need for increased social housing is more important now than ever before. Our society is currently recovering from COVID-19, a crisis that has exposed the existing inequalities within our society, where housing now for many of the population must also double as a place of work.

Social housing – then and now

Historically, social housing was established to mitigate the associated health issues resulting from insanitary housing conditions, with cramped block and slum housing intensifying widespread poor health amongst working-class communities. In response, Britain’s first municipal housing, built at Vauxhall in north Liverpool in 1869, was established on the advice of Liverpool’s first medical officer William Duncan. Subsequently, around five million homes were built by and on behalf of local authorities in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, culminating in the period at the end of the 1970s when more than 40% of the population lived in council housing.

Social homes are provided by housing associations (not-for-profit organisations that own, let, and manage rented housing) or a local council. As a social tenant, you rent your home from the housing association or council, who is your landlord.[3] However, there are currently over a million households waiting on social housing lists in England – making it clear that more social housing is needed to meet demands.[4]

Regenerating communities – investment in social housing as a vital economic stimulus

In June 2020, more than 60 housing groups, charities and industry bodies signed a joint letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging him to put investment in social housing at the heart of the plans for economic recovery from COVID-19. The letter highlighted that the crisis exposed the need for more resilient and better-designed affordable homes, positing social housing as “the answer” to the challenges that lay before us as we recover from an upcoming economic recession.

Moreover, investment in a new generation of social housing will not only provide safe and secure homes for the people that need them (including key workers, homeless people and families stuck in cramped and overcrowded conditions), but increased investment will also  have a transformative impact on the local area and provide much-needed long-term benefits.

As we’ve outlined in our previous blogs, combining large-scale investment in housing, and social housing in particular, with meaningful and targeted community engagement, will have a genuine regenerative effect for people across the country. This in turn will lead to increasingly prosperous, safe and socially mobile communities where everybody has a home that is fit for purpose.

For a successful economic recovery, we need to be able to work properly at home. Building sustainable social housing is therefore a vital community investment to ensure that any ‘levelling up’ of our communities is as inclusive as possible.

[1] Housing is a devolved issue so the UK government only has responsibility for England, and statistics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are published separately.

[2] https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/social-housing-white-paper-expected-in-autumn-with-regulation-focus-67563

[3] https://england.shelter.org.uk/support_us/campaigns/what_is_social_housing

[4] Ibid

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