Housing is the key to a sustainable social contract

David Orr, National Housing Federation

19th Oct 2017

David Orr, Chief Executive of National Housing Federation

A career working in affordable housing and homelessness has confirmed to me what I’m often surprised isn’t obvious to everyone else; that a home is not just bricks and mortar, it represents security, stability, dignity and for many a lifeline. A home is the base from which work, family and participation in society can all be founded. Multiple recent studies have also demonstrated a clear link between housing and good physical and mental health.

This understanding drives the social purpose of housing associations, who deliver not just homes but essential services around them to support communities to thrive.

For those of us who work in the sector, this truth seems so evident that we have often been surprised at the lack of urgency and resource applied to housing policy. The escalating housing crisis of recent years and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower have made this a critical moment for housing in this country, a problem that can no longer be side-lined.

There are clear divisions in our housing market and we have to ask, who is it currently serving? Many young people feel let down and with an ageing population can we be sure our housing offer is agile enough to meet the changing needs of our nation? With housing increasingly a key issue on the doorstep, it makes pragmatic as well as emotive sense to invest in homes and the institutions that can build them.

Recent years have seen the beginning of the breakdown of siloed thinking around housing. Homes are key to community cohesion, the glue that holds together the social contract in our nation. Given this, the National Housing Federation, the trade body representing England’s housing associations, was keen to sponsor the TRG Conference fringe on exactly this topic.

The conversation around housing has undeniably been changing, but I was still surprised at how present housing was at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. This year was unlike any other I have attended before, you couldn’t avoid the issue of housing. What was particularly striking was how much debate focused on new development and homes for the lowest social rents.

Promoting home ownership is not wrong. More people deserve the opportunity to have a home of their own. Young people deserve the opportunities that were available to their parents and grandparents. Indeed, it is on the basis of this aspiration that many housing associations provide affordable home ownership options such as shared ownership that help more people onto the housing ladder.

But what we need is diversity; genuinely affordable rent, achievable ownership models for young people and an aspirational offer for older people that can adapt to their changing needs. Critically, while we help people climb the ladder we need to be looking to the people at the bottom and support them onto that first rung that gives them at least a safe and secure home within their means. This is the only way to ensure cohesive communities and a fair and functional social contract.

Housing is no longer a fringe issue. The Prime Minister’s announcements in her closing speech at Conference have placed it firmly on centre stage. £2 billion additional funding for affordable homes – critically including social rent in this – and certainty over the future of housing association rents will give the sector an immeasurable boost. With this additional resource housing associations and local authorities can deliver homes for those who need it most. These homes will make a huge difference to the people who live in them and are a stepping stone to further opportunity.

Housing associations have an ambition to deliver a quality, affordable home for every person. Increasing the accessibility of these homes is the bedrock of the social contract and societal and inter-generational equality. Let us continue to work together to keep housing at the top of the political agenda and to make sure that no one is left behind.

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