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15 September 2014

It is time to recognise the benefits of social housing

What are the benefits of the social rented sector, and why must current and future governments significantly raise current levels of social housing construction?

By Andrew Rynham Andrew Rynham

You could live in a home with a stable tenancy that is clean, safe and cheap, has mechanisms for accountability and ethical practices, can save taxpayers money and can even invest in your community.

Or, on the other hand, you could live in a more expensive, not as safe and clean home where upfront costs are high, your tenancy and deposit could be taken from you with little notice and no one cares whether you interact with your neighbours or how your rent is spent once it leaves your pocket.

These two scenarios depict situations that exist, highlighting differences between the social rented sector, the first scenario, and the private rented sector (PRS), the second.

In the PRS, where one in three homes are rated as non-decent, you are twice as likely to live in a non-decent home than in the social rented sector. In fact, according to the latest English Housing Survey, social housing has a lower proportion of non-decent homes than the owner-occupied sector too.

As the second highest social security spend after pensions, housing benefit is something more often associated with social housing than private rented housing. It is clear that there are fundamental flaws in society if we are spending £24bn a year on helping people to pay for where they live and, as most would agree, it is something that needs to be reduced. However, this huge sum is getting larger every year and, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, the PRS will be the sole driver of the increasing bill for the foreseeable future.

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This is disappointing as, in housing benefit terms, the PRS costs us £23.41 per claim per week more than the social rented sector, this difference equates to upwards of £150m per month or more than £1.8bn per year. To put this into context, the bedroom tax was projected to save £390m in its first year. This means that for every £1 the government saves, very controversially, through the bedroom tax, it wastes nearly £5 subsidising spiralling private rents.

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Something else that is little known about the PRS is, that as a tenure extolled for giving flexibility to young professionals, it actually houses more children as a proportion than social housing does. Whether with a couple or a lone parent, dependent children live in 32.2 per cent of private rented households compared to 30.6 per cent in social housing.

For children, lack of stability in housing tenure is often cited as a key hindrance to their educational attainment and with the mean length of tenure being four times more in social housing than in the PRS, the social rented sector offers that opportunity for consistency as a base for educational attainment.

Having the option to stay at one address for a long time also gives people the stability to plan for the future, make connections with the neighbours, and provide more incentive to volunteer in the local community. A commitment by the current and future governments to building more social housing would provide growing families and future generations with the stability needed to thrive at school, in work and in the community.

Another reason why increasing current levels of social housing construction would benefit society can be seen in The National Housing Federation’s 2011 Neighbourhood Audit. This report shows that housing associations alone invest £750m annually in all kinds of community initiatives, helping to improve the lives of eight million people. Unfortunately, due to its nature (89 per cent of landlords are private individuals) the PRS just doesn’t have the capacity for this kind of community investment. Of course, social impact is not only judged by the amount of money that is spent and social landlords invest time in the community, employ and train people from the community, provide opportunities to volunteer, help give a voice to the community and much more that impacts positively on people’s lives.

So, with greater stability, less strain on housing benefit, a better standard of homes, greater social impact and its many more benefits, it is time to recognise all the good that social housing can bring to individuals, families, communities and society as a whole. And it is time for the next government to raise construction levels and commit to building at least 100,000 new houses a year as homes for social rent.

Andrew Rynham is a steering group member of the SHOUT (Social Housing Under Threat) campaign group. He tweets @AGR__

SHOUT is a volunteer-run, cross-party campaign group. Its core aim is for a dramatic shift in current public investment policy, so that at least 100,000 new social housing homes are built per year by 2020. It is on Twitter @4socialhousing