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Fit for purpose

Labour's plans for NHS reform are ambitious. We must take the same approach to social housing, argues Alistair McIntosh



In his speech to the King’s Fund last week, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting promised to invest in the NHS. But he also called for reform to try to make sure that the extra money would lead to real changes. He contrasted the ‘Rolls-Royce’ treatment he received to deal with his kidney cancer with the unedifying scramble for GP appointments at eight o’ clock every morning. Such problems are driving a stampede of people who can afford it towards private health care. Of course, as there is only a finite supply of doctors and nurses, this just lengthens the queue for everyone else.

Streeting’s new money would see £1.6bn from tax breaks for non-doms diverted into training an extra 7,500 doctors and 10,000 nurses and midwives each year. The goal is to get closer to patients, with a shift from a top-down National Health Service to a ‘Neighbourhood Health Service’.

Would this approach work for other under-pressure services?

Social housing is an obvious candidate. The Grenfell Inquiry has highlighted the tragic consequences of cutting corners as well as the blunders made by poorly trained and uncaring staff. Since that terrible fire six years ago, there have been repeated exposés of poor standards, notably by the social media campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa and ITV, and the housing ombudsman has handed out numerous judgments of severe maladministration. The death of toddler Awaab Ishak in a Rochdale housing association home, caused by extensive mould, is just the latest in a long line of cases that shame the sector.

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove has been trenchant in calling out social housing – and he deserves praise for it. For too long, national politicians of all stripes have ignored social housing. But, taking a leaf out of Wes Streeting’s book, Labour can do so much more to turn things around.

The first thing is to work out the scale of the problem. The housing select committee, chaired by Clive Betts MP, has launched an inquiry on the financing of social housing. It needs to answer basic questions like:

  • How much money do social landlords need to spend to bring their homes up to scratch?
  • What can landlords afford to do as things stand?
  • How much extra money would need to come from the government by way of subsidy or grant to close the gap?

The National Housing Federation has found that around two million children live in overcrowded conditions, so Betts’ committee must look at funding for new homes too. And these must be good new homes – we don’t want to see cramped flats or the sorts of endless glitches that plague many new developments.

Over the last decade or so the number of housing associations has fallen from around 400 to 200 as associations have been encouraged to merge in the name of efficiency and in the hope of releasing funds. Tenants have little or no say over this process, and remote landlords are all too often found wanting. There is no perfect size of landlord, but we find time and again that staff who really know their patch and who have clout can make all the difference. Mergers can get in the way of this, but we will keep seeing them so long as government grants for housing remain low and there are rent caps. If Labour wants to go local – to create a ‘neighbourhood housing service’ – it will need to put cash in to stop the rot. If we apply Streeting’s principles from health to housing, Labour must come up with a package of cash tied to incentives and safeguards to get the job done.

We have been here before. The New Labour government pumped much-needed money into council housing so long as it passed an independent inspection. In a recent interview with our Housing Quality Network magazine, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham reflected on this. Housing is plainly front and centre of his mind after the Rochdale tragedy, and he spoke about what he wants to see from landlords in return for investment. As you would expect, it’s all about listening to tenants, responding to councils and having the right attitude.

We could go back to tying funding to inspection outcomes. A new Ofsted-style inspectorate for housing is indeed coming into place. But such inspections are far from a silver bullet. The landlords that Andy Burnham thinks are ‘derogatory’ and even ‘discriminatory’ towards tenants today did very well under the old inspection regime. Having inspections every now and again is no guarantee of quality; our colleagues in education can certainly attest to that.

We all know there is a mountain to climb to fix social housing and Labour must be up for the challenge.

We will watch people grappling with the answers as they give evidence to Clive Betts and his committee. Landlords that have read the public mood will offer him a deal, exchanging improved quality of service and homes for cash.

Wes Streeting has made his position on health service reform clear. Labour now needs to do the same on housing. The four million households living in social housing deserve better than they are getting. Media scrutiny of social housing will intensify as the election looms, and Labour must have a compelling response, not least because Labour runs a number of councils that provide poor housing. Labour did not create the financial mess that led to this, but it must find a way out of the maze.


Image credit: clogsilk via Flickr

Image credit: Peabodybore, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Alistair McIntosh

Alistair McIntosh is the chief executive of Housing Quality Network


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