In the discussion last night following our screening of 'Dispossession - The Great Social Housing Swindle', several people felt that the film was overly negative, focusing too much on intractable problems and not on solutions. While I agree that the questions raised have no easy answers, I personally believe it is right to ask them. Social housing has been treated as housing of last resort for such a long time - and hence poorly designed, poorly maintained, ghettoised on single tenure estates - that most people seem to accept this as inevitable . But social housing has not always been stigmatised in this way. Lloyd George wanted council housing to offer 'homes fit for heroes'. In many countries social housing remains a thriving and integral part of the housing market (eg 33% of homes in the Netherlands are provided by social landlords for rent). After all, it is not as if the current housing market in the UK - with its emphasis on owner occupation and mortgage debt, private landlordism, and a marginal role for social housing - is working well.
While Dispossession does focus on cities and the selling-off of former council estates to private developers, it seems to me that the issues it raises are highly relevant to Frome. 14% of the housing in our town is social housing and some is in need of serious improvement. The turnover within the social housing sector is very limited. Few homes for social rent are being built. At the same time, housing prices are now way beyond what many young local families can afford, and rents charged by private landlords are escalating. The 'gentrification' and 'social cleansing' which Dispossession highlights follow a different process here in Frome, but are just as real as in those neighbourhoods in London, Glasgow or Nottingham.
One way forward which we discussed last night was to push for all new developments in Frome to include the 30% of 'affordable' housing that Mendip nominally requires (but which developers here have consisted side-stepped). I agree, but with these caveats:
- (1) 'Affordable' housing, as defined by government, includes starter homes for sale, homes for shared ownership, and homes rented at 80% of 'market' rents - all of which are not genuinely affordable to many of the local people who need decent, secure housing. I would argue that we need to push for a reasonable proportion of homes in new developments provided by social landlords (or possibly a community development trust) at rents equivalent to those in the social housing sector.
- (2) Many Frome citizens oppose new building and oppose affordable housing 'in their back yards'. I believe we need, while respecting residents' concerns, to challenge this kind of nimbyism, and to make a positive case for a resurgence of social housing in our town.
Of course we may be working against the tide, but aren't we proud of Frome's independent spirit and ability to trial a better way?