Chancellor George Osborne with Peaks & Plains chief Tim Pinder
When the Chancellor opened a new housing development in his Cheshire constituency, Peaks & Plains Housing Trust spotted an opportunity to make the case for investment in social housing.
When another letter from the local MP lands on my desk, my eyes light up. Am I alone among my peers in having this reaction?
Well maybe, because our local MP happens to be George Osborne and his letter gives me another opportunity in my reply to make the case for social housing and to quantify the problem, by way of explaining why we’ve been unable to re-house his correspondent. In the housing sector, it’s often asked whether Government “gets” the housing problem. The sheer volume of this correspondence makes it difficult for him not to “get it”.
The Chancellor’s constituency, which includes places like Alderley Edge, Knutsford and Wilmslow, has some of the highest house prices outside London. It means home ownership is beyond the reach of many, even those on reasonable incomes. Many of our tenants wouldn’t be social tenants elsewhere.
We recently completed our first new homes in the Chancellor’s constituency, and we invited him to view them and discuss with us two key issues: the continued need for subsidy and some myth-busting about the profile of social housing tenants in his constituency.
We discussed the fact that unlike the media caricature of social housing tenants, many of ours had stories resonating much louder with Conservative philosophy. Take for instance the tenant who’s business collapsed due to the recession - taking their home with it, or another recent letting to someone keeping down three low-paid jobs to keep his family together, but still unable to afford his private rented flat and needing an affordable alternative. Mr Osborne listened patiently, seemingly willing to hear about social housing’s invaluable contribution within his constituency.
Stereotypes about benefit scroungers and the non-deserving poor aren’t just peddled by the media, but by some of his constituents too. We face enormous vitriolic opposition to many of our attempts to develop rural affordable housing with prospective tenants referred to in the most offensive terms. We point out that we cater for people born and bred in the village, engaged in low-paid jobs that help keep the village alive.
It too often seems as though people’s empathy reservoirs have run dry. A distinguished and respected resident leading the opposition in one village told us that you had to earn your right to live there and our tenants hadn’t done so, by virtue of being poor.
Opinion polls suggest that such views are held by increasing numbers. Such emotionally-based prejudices aren’t easily countered rationally, which is why I wonder about the impact of TV programmes such as ‘Neighbourhood Watched’. Yes, they portray dedicated staff doing a tough job against all the odds, making a massive difference to people’s lives and the community at large. But that resonates with me because of my housing vocation. For the vitriolic objectors I referred to, they’re more likely to feel it adds grist to their mill.
We need the Daily Mail to change perceptions by running positive stories about the value of social housing. Perhaps that’s not too far fetched, as the housing crisis deepens and it starts to impact on more people. As numbers increase, so too does the need for more homes and more subsidy – the second issue we discussed with Mr Osborne. However welcome some of the tidal wave of initiatives announced by the former housing minister, they were never going to deliver any significant numbers to alleviate his growing postbag.
Whichever way you cut it, we said, more subsidy would be required. Again he listened but did he act? Well there was an additional £300m announced in September’s economic growth stimulus; a small step in the right direction. If it’s all spent in his constituency, it may bring to an end our long correspondence.