It was probably one of the more surprising nuggets of feedback from survivors of the Grenfell tower fire, but they strongly felt there was a stigma attached to living in social housing and this lay at the heart of many contributory factors to the disaster.
They felt they were not listened to when they voiced concerns about the quality of work, that they were left feeling they should be grateful ‘instead of complaining’ and that they should be content with receiving services in a benign manner rather than trying to influence their landlord, service provider or other decision-makers. In effect they were expected to keep quiet and accept what they were given, even when this wasn’t very nice.
This has clearly struck a chord with many working in the sector and has even caused our politicians to pause and reflect on the basis of this feeling and how to put it right. The future Green Paper on social housing should go a long way to revealing how the Government thinks the problem can be addressed.
But in recent weeks we have seen more evidence of the causes and of possible solutions. It was a hot topic at the recently held Chartered Institute of Housing annual conference in Manchester, with many speakers and delegates raising the subject.
The institute itself launched a very timely report called ‘Rethinking social housing’ to spark a national debate about the role and purpose of social housing. The project took on greater significance when it was revealed the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire would not consider wider issues regarding social housing.
It revealed polling results showing that:
• More than six out of 10 people across England support more social housing being built in their area;
• 80 per cent of people agree that social housing is important because it helps people on lower incomes get housing which wouldn’t be affordable in the private rented sector;
• 78 per cent agree that social housing should be available to people who cannot afford the cost of renting privately, as well as to the most vulnerable;
• 68 per cent agree that social housing plays in important role in tackling poverty in Britain; and
• 65 per cent of people agree that the negative view of the people that live in social housing is unfair.
It concludes that the time has come to reclaim social housing as a central pillar of society alongside education and the NHS. But have social landlords – councils and housing associations – contributed to the problems? The residents of Grenfell Tower certainly appeared to think so, with many of them being critical of both the council and their managing agents at the tenant management organisation. Accounts given to the public inquiry by survivors, their relatives and friends left us in no doubt that they felt like the least important people in their community.
As the owners of a significant number of residential properties (at least 17 per cent of the nation’s stock) social landlords often let and manage the majority of housing in many neighbourhoods. The housing is usually of a similar appearance and often looks in need of further invest- ment, or just sprucing up. This can be difficult to justify in a time of austerity with limited resources, when the politicians are demanding more new housing, but no-one wants to live on a sink estate, or one suffering from multiple deprivation.
Ruth Cooke, the new chief executive of Clarion Housing Group, appeared to speak for many when she said that while the sector has got to challenge myths about tenants, it also needs to look in the mirror and consider whether it contributes to the problem.
“A lot of stigmatisation is about the place where tenants live,” she said. “If our core landlord service is not good enough and contributes to a place looking unattractive then I think we feed some of that narrative. So every time we visit our estates and we see rotten window frames, we see meter doors hanging off, we see rubbish, we see an estate that looks uncared for, we are feeding that perception. And I think we have to tackle that.”
After a while we can get used to our surroundings and we may not be good at picking up on what might be a gradual decline. But by engaging with local residents and dealing with the small irritations, the small disrepair items and the little things that make a difference to the area around residents’ homes, there is a good chance we will make an important difference to people’s lives and their perception of us and of themselves. The challenge is out there for all social landlords to grab hold of this issue and work with tenants to find local solutions to local problems, rather than waiting for a top- down solution to be imposed from on high. After all, who knows best?