Should social housing support be a priority for this year's Budget?

As we head towards the Autumn 2018 Budget, there are more pressures than usual on the Chancellor to set out a clear path financially for the UK. As a key element of the new Budget, the housing market is in need of some good news. Across all types of housing – from social and private rental homes to owner-occupation – the UK is currently facing a housing crisis, with too few homes available at an affordable price and decent quality.

Evidence from research carried out by the Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM), at the University of Birmingham, on behalf of social housing provider Vivid Homes suggests that good news in the 2018 Budget will need to be more than just promised investment in more housing. It will also require a policy shift. Policies will need to expand from Britain’s current preoccupation with owner-occupation (affirmed in last year’s Budget, with the Chancellor’s promise to make homeownership a ‘reality, not a dream’) to also encompass the vital role played by social housing in encouraging positive wellbeing for many UK citizens.

A fairer and more economically efficient housing strategy would address the needs of all types of housing and recognise that home ownership is not the only type of housing in which people can be happy in. Accepting this may be a leap of faith for politicians and policy-makers who are wedded to the idea that homeownership is the only natural choice for anyone with the necessary finances, but research from CHASM highlights not only the social value of other forms of housing, but also the positive emotional impact such housing has on the lives of those that live in them.

Over the last 18 months, CHASM has undertaken several large-scale surveys asking people about their housing experiences and their personal wellbeing. The research has found that, contrary to dominant narratives about social housing only being used as a last resort for the most vulnerable, those who live in social housing may actually fare better than if they become owner-occupiers. From a study of social tenants and owner-occupiers in the South East, we discovered that social renters are actually seven percentage points less likely to be anxious than owner-occupiers. Perhaps less surprisingly, a related study we undertook in the South West in partnership with researchers from East Devon District Council and LiveWest Housing shows that social renters have much better levels of wellbeing than many in the private rental sector.

From this evidence, it is clear that we need to move away from thinking about social housing as if it is a drag on life-chances and detrimental to wellbeing. On the contrary, our evidence suggests that it is positive for the whole of the UK’s society and therefore needs to feature suitably in government spending plans. In the post-Grenfell world, the need to address the housing crisis must be seen beyond the confines of academic research and debate and enforced strongly at a policy level.

In follow-up interviews in the South West and the South East, one of the strongest themes to emerge is that it is not ownership per se that people value, but the emotional security that comes with having a stable home. With a private rental sector dogged by poor quality and insecurity, government should be looking at strengthening tenancy rights in this sector. Now more than ever, we should be thinking about an expansion of a more inclusive and flexible social sector that can provide this highly prized security to more households, many of whom may well find that it suits their needs better than the ‘dream’ of ownership.

Dr James Gregory, Research Centre on Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM), University of Birmingham

Professor Andy Lymer, Director of CHASM, University of Birmingham