Is social housing a failed brand?

I took part in a live discussion on the Guardian website yesterday on the role of social housing, which generated quite a debate. One contributor, the CEO of a large London association, said this:

‘Social housing is now a damaged brand. Housing associations need to return to their roots – yes, housing those without work, but housing the low-to-average-waged, too. We need to reclaim our landlord role and control who we let to. For us we would give greater priority to those who work locally. We could house the local school’s teaching assistant and the local hospital’s health staff.’

I take issue with that first sentence. The notion of social housing being a ‘damaged’ or ‘failed’ brand has been prevalent on the right for decades, but some in our sector are now starting to repeat it. Boris Worrall writes about it here, and here Peter Hall suggests that we should scrap social housing altogether and move towards “affordable housing” where the default rent would be set at market rates, but then discounted according to individual incomes.

To be fair to Boris, he supports the concept of social housing but has doubts about the brand. But putting rhetoric to one side for a moment, let’s look at a few facts.

The number of households which have taken the trouble of registering on housing waiting lists has risen from 1.03m in 1997 to 1.7m in 2013. Any private brand with 4m potential customers would be pretty delighted, I think. A failed brand?
According to recent English Household surveys, 81% of social renters said they were satisfied with their present accommodation and with their local area. Wouldn’t any commercial brand be chuffed with such a positive rating? (“Eight out of ten cats said they preferred Whiskas.”) A failed brand?
The social rented sector also has the highest level of decent homes – 85%, compared to 80% for owner occupiers and 67% for the private rented sector. A failed brand?
Critics will counter this by pointing out that housing satisfaction levels are slightly higher for private renters (83%) and owners (91%). They will also argue that 86% of the population, according to the English Household Survey, would choose to buy ‘if they had a free choice’, although this drops to just 58% for local authority tenants and 61% for housing association tenants.

But of course, most people, ‘if they had a free choice’ would like to be millionaires. It’s never going to happen for most, and perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the social housing sector deals with many of the poorest and most vulnerable people, whose chances of home ownership are becoming more remote by the day.

Surely our role is not to denigrate our product, but to talk it up?

That is why our role is becoming ever more critical. So the danger of describing your key product as ‘failed or ‘damaged’ is that it becomes self-fulfilling.

Tom Murtha rightly evokes the memory of Gerald Ratner, who famously described his jewellery as ‘total crap’. Had Ratner kept quiet, he could still be in business, but instead he was soon bankrupt.

Surely our role is not to denigrate our product, but to talk it up? Social housing has a proud record, going all the way back to almshouses in the 12th century. Better space standards, higher levels of decent homes, lower rents, good quality management (in most cases). Millions want to buy into it, if they could only get the chance.

Of course there have been mistakes along the way, but this is the same for most brands. Many have had their ups and downs over the years. Social housing has a proud past and it can have a bright future, but we need to criticise it less and be better at shouting about it.

(First published at Inside Housing on 22nd July 2014)

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