The Guardian view on social housing: we need a cultural shift | Editorial

The failure to provide adequate public sector rented housing in England is acknowledged across party lines as a catastrophe. A commission has put forward practical proposals

Nineteen months after the Grenfell Tower fire, some of the hunger for change catalysed by the terrible events of 14 June 2017 has found an outlet. A report by the commission on social housing convened by the charity Shelter takes up a number of proposals put forward by the disaster’s survivors. The signs are that the government is listening. Proposals for a new system of regulation in England are expected later this year.

The commission makes the case for a model based on reforms to the banking sector, a key element of which is that consumers – tenants, in this case – should have their own regulator, distinct from the body tasked with economic oversight. The new organisation, the report argues, should proactively inspect private as well as social landlords, and set clear standards. Barriers to complaint must be removed, no-fault evictions outlawed, and tenancies extended beyond the three years now being considered – as they have been in Scotland. The proposal for a national, independent tenants’ organisation, and enhanced powers for local groups, is also sound. Currently, half of private renters who make complaints are evicted within six months.

This is not to tar all housing providers with the same brush. Many are responsive and responsible. But whatever the detailed findings of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry into Grenfell, it is clear that the balance of power between tenants and landlords is wrong. The commission’s point that many tenants are locked in, and cannot “switch supplier”, as consumers are encouraged to do when dissatisfied with a utility company, is well made. It is this sense of helplessness that breeds the stigma acknowledged by Theresa May last year, and described by the commission as linked to the “institutional indifference” it seeks to end.

Falling rates of ownership and the ballooning housing benefit bill, as well as Grenfell, mean the terms of the housing debate have changed. Among Shelter’s commissioners were former Conservative ministers Lord Jim O’Neill and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who announced at the report’s launch that she has changed her mind. Having previously believed that the market could deliver her party’s vision of a property-owning democracy, she now endorses a vast expansion of public housing.

The recommendation that 3.1m homes should be built in England in the next two decades would see the largest-ever growth of socially rented accommodation. This would provide for all those failed by the market, including 691,000 older people as well as priced-out younger renters, and the 1.27m households “in greatest need”. The commission suggests its 20-year programme would cost an average of £10.7bn a year (reduced to £3.8bn if benefits and taxes are considered).

The proposals for a new regulator and union for tenants should be adopted. The principle that people who will never own their own homes should be entitled to a socially rented one is also correct. If the Treasury, under this or any future government, declines to fund the necessary increase, ministers must do all they can to encourage pension funds and other investors to step forward. The provision of high-quality housing to the toughest environmental standards, in mixed communities, is in the national interest, unlike the speculation and rent-seeking that characterise our dysfunctional housing market. If we can one day look back and see that Grenfell led to a cultural shift in the way housing is regarded, and an improvement in the position of tenants, the disaster’s 72 victims will not have died for nothing.

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Editorial

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