These days Theresa May has less time to spend distancing herself from her predecessor. With blue-on-blue warfare rife and her premiership at a continual rocky patch, the Prime Minister’s priorities tend to be getting through the day/week rather than killing David Cameron’s pet projects. However, this week’s social housing green paper serves as a reminder of the difference in their approaches.
After leaving the coalition government, Nick Clegg recalled a senior Conservative minister telling him: ‘I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing – it just creates Labour voters.’ This dismissive attitude to social housing could be found in the policies the Cameron government adopted. As housing minister, Grant Shapps sought to oust the ‘quango’ and closed the Tenant Services Authority. Meanwhile, David Cameron and George Osborne brought in ‘affordable rent’ as a new type of social housing that didn’t involve building houses.
So, in a way, the fact that the government have even released a green paper on social housing this week is a sign of a new approach. The document lists a series of ideas to improve the system for residents in council homes and housing associations. In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, Theresa May and her ministers are trying to say that they take social housing seriously.
Among the policy ideas are a strengthening of tenants’ rights, more attractive buildings, landlord league tables, better support for tenants and the use of schemes like ‘right to buy’ to try and help residents to build equity in their homes at the rate of 1pc a year. There’s also talk of updating the decent home standard – the minimum standard for council and housing association properties in order to ensure they are safe.
However, although the Prime Minister has identified housing as one of her many burning injustices to solve – there is no extra money being announced and, importantly, no mass house building plan. There are plans for new affordable homes – of which 12,500 will be social rent homes. This means that although the government is doing what it can to improve the lives of those already in social housing, they have stopped short of taking the more drastic action of meeting demand.
Theresa May’s green paper is a step away from Cameronism but it’s still the case that the Conservative policy is to focus on pushing voters towards private home ownership. Yet research by the Resolution Foundation predicts that one third of millenials will never own a home. Unless the government can make home ownership achievable for the majority of the UK workforce once again – without having to rely on the help of the bank of mum and dad – the number of people who will look to social housing in the years to come will increase drastically. If the Conservatives want to avoid that, they need a radical housebuilding programme – and fast.