Thursday, 13 September 2018

What "new deal for social housing"? Not for disabled people.

The social housing green paper, A new deal for social housing, is primarily an attempt to address the important issue - highlighted by what happened to Grenfell Tower residents - of ensuring that social housing tenants are listened to and have more say in how their housing is run. Important though this is, the policy proposals do not address any of the other important issues facing tenants, would-be tenants or local authorities. 

Instead, the proposals set out in the green paper indicate a government which is more concerned with increasing owner occupation than with ensuring that more people are living in affordable homes which meet their needs. These proposals are therefore limited by, to quote from the green paper itself, the government’s “vision centred on how social housing can support people to get on in life, making it more likely, not less, they will go on to buy their own home, as well as providing an essential, good quality and well run safety net for those who need it most”.

The government is clear that social housing’s role is at best a “springboard” (as they call it) to becoming an owner occupier and at worst merely a “safety net”.  Even though one of the aims of the green paper is to reduce the stigma associated with this tenure, the language and aims make it clear that social housing must always be inferior to other tenures.

This is unfortunate for everyone affected by our current dysfunctional housing market but it is especially unfortunate for disabled people who particularly rely on social housing. Secondary analysis carried out of English Housing Survey data found that 30% of households containing a disabled person (34% of working age households) live in social housing compared with 17% of all households. And according to the most recent data available from the English Housing Survey “50% of households in the social rented sector had at least one member with a long-term illness or disability. This is noticeably higher than in other tenures: 29% of owner occupier households and 23% of private renter households fell into this category”.

Only 7% of all housing in England meets even minimum accessibility standards, yet over 300,000 households, (including 140,000 working age households) have an unmet need for accessible, and affordable, housing. Working age households are less likely to occupy housing which is suitable to meet their needs than older households and people with unmet need for accessible housing are estimated to be four times more likely to be unemployed or not seeking work due to sickness/disability than disabled people without needs or whose needs are met.

The green paper contains no new money for social housing - indicating that the decline in social housing which started in the early 1990s will continue. NB Since I wrote this, the government announced £2bn for housing associations for the next spending review period (2022-2028).  This has been spun as 'extra' but in fact the current spending review period (2016-2021) allocated £9bn for housing associations, which is a reduction from the £25bn allocated by the last Labour government.

The Right to Buy removes homes from the tenure each year and they are not being replaced. Every government since the Right to Buy was introduced - whether Conservative, Labour or Coalition - has pursued a deliberate policy of failing to support local authorities to replace the homes lost each year.  In fact, the amount of social housing being built has consistently fallen since the early 1990s and this has accelerated since 2010.  The so-called “safety net” is getting smaller and smaller yet there are over a million people on council waiting lists (the numbers have declined in recent years but this is due partly to local councils tightening their criteria and partly to more action being taken to update waiting lists) and the numbers placed in temporary accommodation have increased by 61 percent since 2010/11. 

Current policy responses to housing need are focussed on increasing the supply of various forms of so-called ‘affordable’ housing (meaning a maximum 80% of market value): affordable rented from housing association, shared ownership and affordable home ownership. This is despite the fact that the government’s own Impact Assessment carried out when ‘affordable’ rents were introduced in 2011/12 identified that an increase in social housing would reduce “the numbers in housing need by three times as much as a rise in private supply of the same amount, with these housing services better targeted at those in need.”  Unfortunately, the policies which followed, and which are proposed in the current green paper, ignore this evidence. 

The government has a goal of 300,000 new build properties a year in England but housebuilding at this level was only ever met in the past because of the contribution made by local councils building social housing. Such volumes have never been achieved when we relied entirely on the private sector to provide new houses. Even ‘affordable’ homes for sale have declined over the last 10 years with completions halving since 2009/10 (although within this total homes sold for shared ownership have risen).

Neither can the private sector be relied upon to build new homes that are suitable for disabled people so seeing social housing as merely a “springboard” to home ownership does not address the barriers they face. Lifetime Homes Standards were intended to encourage housing which suited people at all stages of their lives and which would be adaptable to both the inevitability of needs in old age and the unforeseen needs resulting from impairment and illness.  Successive governments have failed to adopt the necessary building regulations which would made this possible and the planning framework remains weak on requiring private developers to build housing suitable for everyone. 

Even the existing planning requirements are seldom properly implemented.  Local authorities are supposed to assess the level of need amongst disabled people when drawing up local plans but - according to a comprehensive survey carried out by the EHRC - most do not have adequate data on which to do this and very few local authorities set targets for accessible housing.  Building regulations require new dwellings to be built to a Category 1 ‘visitability’ standard (meaning that people with mobility impairments should be able to get inside the ground floor of a home).  Yet many developers do not comply and few local authorities take action against them. Only a third of local authorities in England set a target for accessible homes in their Local Plans and two-thirds of them said they didn’t monitor whether this target was actually met.

Given how important social housing is for disabled people, of all ages, the green paper is a missed opportunity to increase the supply of housing built to Building Regulations Category 2 standard (which is similar to the original Lifetime Homes Standards) and to set and require targets for Category 3 (wheelchair accessible) homes, something which was also recommended by the EHRC in their recent report. 

Not only does the green paper reflect an assumption that social housing can never be a mainstream option.  It also assumes that housing for disabled people is not a mainstream issue.  The only current housing initiative which addresses housing need amongst disabled people concerns supported housing.  This is to be welcomed but most disabled people live in households with others and their housing needs are mainstream - an affordable home which is physically appropriate to their requirements and where they can receive whatever support they need to access the opportunities that non-disabled people take for granted. 

The green paper fails to address any of the issues relating to the role of social housing identified by the EHRC in their recent inquiry into housing and disabled people.  For example, the green paper could have proposed that local authorities take action to make better use of existing housing that might be suitable for disabled people and their families, by for example requiring the setting up of Accessible Housing Registers.  Only 1 in 5 local authorities in Britain currently have such registers which make it easier to both match people with properties but which would also help with identifying gaps in supply of accessible housing. According to the government’s own figures, one in five disabled people in social housing live in unsuitable accommodation.  

There is a reference in the green paper to the ‘review’ which has been commissioned on the Disabled Facilities Grant system, the results of which should have been published by now but which is apparently now going to be incorporated into the long-awaited social care green paper.  This prompts concerns that the funding for DFGs, which is only guaranteed up until March 2020, may be incorporated into any new funding arrangements proposed for social care. 

The value of DFGs and the difficulties with the current system are well known. Frances Heywood’s work in particular demonstrated over 10 years ago illustrated that even minor adaptations can reduce the cost of health and social care and improve the quality of people’s lives. The difficulties with the system are similarly well known: a shortage of occupational therapists (a problem which goes back some 40 years); a failure to properly the fund the revenue costs of running DFG services; and  the inevitable bureaucratic difficulties created by having an entitlement delivered by a cash limited budget.   It’s also well established that many people who need adaptations to their home don’t know about the DFG system and, amongst those that do, negotiating their way through the system can prove difficult. The green paper could have proposed increasing the availability of information, advice and support to enable people to access the support they need and are entitled to, to carry out much needed adaptations, some of which are small but make a major difference to the quality of people’s lives.  All of this could have much improved existing social housing so that it better meets the needs of current tenants. 

All in all the social housing green paper is a missed opportunity to respond to the potential that the sector has to make a major contribution to unmet housing needs amongst the population generally and amongst households with disabled family members in particular. The underlying problem is that the government has a very limited vision for social housing, seeing it as nothing more than a “springboard” for home ownership and otherwise merely a “safety net”.  This rigid, ideological position means that the government is failing to address a growing problem - the lack of appropriate and affordable housing - which affects increasing numbers of households.