by Ken Gibb

Many of you will have seen the nicely constructed piece by Alex Marsh today reporting his take on the roundtable we held last week at the ISA43 conference at the University of Amsterdam (

The theme of the roundtable was ‘Can we, should we de-residualise social housing?’ Alex was asked to look at the question from an English perspective. As his post indicates he directly answered the questions posed and wrote it up as a substantive long post. I will not go into the details of Alex’s comments but rather say a little bit about why we organised this roundtable and the broader international perspective (as well as a perspective from Scotland).

The session asked participants and the 70 plus audience whether the current crisis and commonality internationally of dysfunctional housing systems offers an opportunity for a more positive, broader and perhaps novel role for non-market housing? I was drawn to this topic because of a growing sense that while we as commentators often ask government and agencies to spell out their vision for social housing – we rarely if at all actually do it ourselves. A theme of the wider conference (‘At home with the housing market’) and one clearly articulated at the conference by both Ray Forrest and Suzanne Fitzpatrick was the abject failure of progressive forces to mount an effective riposte or counter-position arguing for more progressive housing and related policies. Is there a social housing vision that we can construct from different countries’ experiences?

We had a rather Anglo-Saxon set of speakers: two from the USA (ED Goetz and Rachel Bratt) as well an Australian perspective from Mike Darcy and the aforementioned Alex Marsh, the judge from Bristol.

What were the main messages:
• Engineering a greater political debate that seeks a positive wider (and deeper) role is essential – though this is currently difficult (to put it mildly).
• It is not easy to observe a coherent US social housing policy at all (though plenty of evidence of successful local programmes and innovation through for instance not for profit intermediaries).
• Good local US programmes like community land trusts, etc. are working but with modest effects.
• Low-income housing tax credits were viewed critically by in-country experts and others present (as was the Australian version – the NRAS model).
• Public housing in the US, dominated by the dynamic of race, was described as a dead or ‘afterlife’ policy – despite the fact that particularly in some rural and small town communities it worked perfectly well.
• The English dimension emphasised the changing nature of subsidy (away from price subsidy), the importance of and interrelationship between social and the growing private rental market.
• Australia signifies where trends seem to be moving more widely – shallower subsidy and affordable rather than social housing based on cross subsidy – but not really tackling the major market failures that create a need for affordable intervention in the first place.

It goes without saying that Scotland is qualitatively different from England, it is a much smaller housing system, which is a challenge as well as an opportunity, but it also has to work within public finance constraints and welfare benefits set in Whitehall. The major differences are probably: a belief in and a mechanism for council housing to be constructed at a decent scale (and funded in part by government grant), the imminent abolition of the Right to Buy, a large number of smaller housing associations, and innovative use of guarantees to support affordable mid-market investment. Grant rates are rising at the margin and there appears to be strong opposition to the Coalition Government practice of higher rents at reletting (social rents are a lot lower in Scotland). While there may appear to be a more (albeit somewhat dilute and contested) social democratic approach in Scotland to social housing – it is not necessarily financially sustainable nor is it obvious how embedded it is or to what extent it is a longer term priority of either government or the opposition.

We only had an hour and everyone who contributed to the session could reasonably be interpreted (by me!) as wanting to see a more balanced housing system that worked for the disadvantaged and would see social housing playing an important role in making this kind of impact happen. However, we did not come up with a vision or a well-defined sense of how social housing should be articulated in a feasible national housing system for the future emerging from the current economic, financial and political context. It will be something I am going to try to put down on paper over the next few weeks but it is also a challenge for the reader, which I hope they will take up?