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A new deal for social housing – just not a brilliant or radical one

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In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the then housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid announced “a wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing” the social housing sector.

The government’s green paper would, he said at the time, “be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.

Officers, politicians and residents have waited with baited breath since those words were uttered last September. Mr Javid was seemingly prescient when he said at the time that the green paper was “not something we’re going to rush”.

Almost a year on, and the green paper has (finally) landed. To be precise the official document, called ‘a new deal for social housing’, landed in LGC’s inbox at 11.51am… on a Tuesday… in the middle of August. That’s not exactly the best timing to guarantee the domination of headlines, airwaves and television studios even if some select top-lines were issued to the media under embargo yesterday afternoon. When LGC pressed the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s press office, and sources, for clarity on a number of issues yesterday we were rebuffed. A cynic might suggest that’s because the ministry did not think the full contents of the green paper would receive universal backing.

Based on some of the views of key commentators reported by LGC and other media outlets today, the government might have been right to be fearful.

Even Martin Swales, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers economic prosperity and housing spokesman, briefly set aside his usual positive outlook when he said: “We believe there is scope to be even more ambitious by freeing up councils to build new social homes at scale.”

There are some good things in the green paper though - officially abolishing plans to make councils sell off higher value homes to fund an extended right-to-buy to housing associations is a key highlight for local authorities.

Plans to revitalise the popular ‘Decent Homes Standard’ are hard to argue with, as are proposals to give residents/tenants a greater voice when raising concerns about their landlords. However, it would have been surprising if the green paper had not included such measures, given the fact ministers and civil servants consulted with 8,000 tenants following the Grenfell Tower disaster last year.

Giving the role of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation in the events running up to, and immediately following, the fire it is perhaps unsurprising the government wants to meddle a bit more at a local level.

There are plans for the social housing regulator to have greater powers to fine councils and intervene in their management arrangements.

The government is also proposing to publish league tables on all social landlords’ performance, which could impact on the amount of funding given to each area.

Ofsted-style enforcement could also be introduced in a bid to drive up standards.

These are heavy-handed measures, but the general consensus on the 76-page green paper is that it represents little more than tinkering around the edges.

Yesterday the ministry announced a series of measures relating to a plan to end rough sleeping by 2027. The rough sleeping strategy, another official document mysteriously released way after the media had been fed some select top lines, was soon picked apart to reveal most of the £100m funding had been reprioritised from other budgets. It left people like Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) urging the government to “go much further, much faster” with their proposals.

Similar views were being repeated by the sector today in relation to the green paper.

If social housing really is “treasured”, as Mr Javid said 11 months ago, then why won’t the government fully lift the borrowing cap for all councils so they can get on and build these much-needed homes at scale?

There is a sense in the sector that, once again, a big opportunity has been missed.

And if the contents of two, supposedly important, documents published this week have been anything to go by then there is little hope anything radical will be forthcoming in the social care green paper in the autumn. Assuming it doesn’t get delayed again, of course.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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