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Opinion: Social housing - what’s in a name?

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Opinion: Social housing - what’s in a name?

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing

'2.5 million council houses sold' under Right-to-Buy '2.5 million council houses sold' under Right-to-Buy

By Kevin Gulliver, Director, Human City Institute and member of the SHOUT campaign steering group

As George Orwell knew only too well, the language we use to describe our world is imbued with meaning. Orwell also recognised that our evolving vocabulary and the terms we use to describe society and the economy are powerful enough to change the way we think.

His idea of Newspeak, where words could signify the opposite of their original meaning, saw the Ministry of Propaganda named the Ministry of Truth. Orwell laid bare how language can dictate meaning, warp reality and set agenda. Think today how there are no more ‘problems’ to be solved: only issues or challenges to be addressed.

Let’s look at how the word ‘fair’ has a morphed meaning since the coalition came to power to 2010. Before then, ‘fairness’, or the lack of it, was usually applied to the wealth gap between rich and poor.

Since 2010, fairness has been redefined by the coalition to relate to the lifestyle gap between the very poor on welfare benefits contrasted with the working poor. The super-rich and their share of national wealth being greater than at any time since the Edwardian era barely gets a mention. Instead we get the rhetoric of ‘strivers versus skivers’ with social housing signalled out as a foster of a ‘dependency culture’ (although without a scintilla of proof).

As Chancellor George Osborne said in his 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: "Where's the fairness for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits … We speak for all those who want to work hard and get on … They strive for a better life. We strive to help them."

Social housing has experiencing something similar for many years. Even the term ‘social housing’ is relatively new and replaced two distinct sectors - ‘council housing’ and ‘voluntary housing’ managed by housing associations. Housing associations themselves have had many names – public utility societies, housing societies or trusts, voluntary housing organisations, housing associations (from 1935 onwards) registered social landlords and latterly registered providers.

The current rebranding of social housing is a further case in point. The rise in commercialism and the appropriation of market language in the last two decades have and are reshaping social housing. The nature of social housing is being redefined, while the views of tenants are ignored and alternatives ways of managing social housing are closed-off.

In a recent HCI survey, those living in social housing were asked their preference in how they are addressed. They were give a series of alternatives, including customers, tenants, residents, clients and service-users. Overwhelming (two thirds) they wanted to be known a ‘residents’. ‘Tenants’ was second favourite and ‘customers’ a distant third.

Focus group work revealed that ‘residents’ was popular because it gave parity with home owners. Focus group participants also rejected ‘customers’ as they thought the term whittled away their rights as tenants. They felt more like passive recipients of housing services but without any opportunity to exercise choice in market terms and move to another social landlord.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets’, argues that the dominance of a narrow form of market thinking and its penetration into the public and third sectors has worrying consequences. Not only do social goods change their nature when supplied through the market but the market crowds out other ways of providing services that may, paradoxically, be more efficient.

Sandel cites the banking cartel setting the LIBOR interest rate and the inability of G4S to service Olympic security, having to be replaced by the British Army at the last minute, as two examples of market failures. He concludes that we need to be more sceptical about market approaches and have greater confident about our own judgements.

The current vision for social housing, which draws upon outmoded market thinking, needs to be challenged. Social housing should reject a consumerism approach and embrace greater democracy and resident control of social housing assets since they are both more desirable and more efficient.

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