Housing Need? Why the English Social Rented Sector is chronically unfit for purpose

1,200,000 people of working-age need a 1 bed social housing property each year and they all compete for the 25,000 that English social landlords provide each year.  It is time to take a much closer look at housing need.

England’s council and housing associations meet just 2% of the housing and rehousing need of single person households. Or the facts show it does NOT meet the need of 98% of England’s single households and England’s social rented sector (SRS) is decidedly unfit for purpose

The 1 bed property is the Holy Grail of rented housing.  It is sought by:

  • The Housing First client for a rough sleeper to escape rooflessness (16,500)
  • The two-thirds of rough sleepers pa that the Housing First model ignores (34,000)
  • The single homeless hostel client to escape homelessness (100,000)
  • The newly released ex-offender to escape rooflessness and homelessness
  • The single woman seeking to escape a refuge
  • 529,000 – which is 46% of those – on council waiting lists
  • 386,000 sofa surfers who are single homeless households
  • Single homeless households placed in temporary accommodation by LAs

The eight bullet points are by no means an exhaustive list or are they listed in any order of priority and for example the bedroom tax downsizing household is another cohort seeking the same housing solution of a 1 bed rented housing property.  The Bedroom Tax has significantly increased demand for the 1 bed SRS property yet the problems of its chronic undersupply began six decades before the bedroom tax began as social (ahem) landlords and primarily local councils CHOSE not to build the 1 bed property for anyone other than older persons in sheltered housing.

These eight cohorts in the bullet points above give a demand of 1.1 million to 1.2 million needing a 1 bed property each and every year in England.  This year, 2021, will add a great many more as a result of losing a job and relationship breakdown and other pandemic, recession and Brexit consequences.  We don’t know how many more but likely to be significantly more.

Council and Housing Association landlords in England – the so-called social rented sector – typically have 60,000 or so 1 bed properties becoming available each year according to official data, of which the minority and circa 25,000 are available to those below sheltered housing age of typically 55 (and here I use working age for that as shorthand.)

A working age yearly demand of 1,200,000 and SRS supply of 25,000 reveals social housing to be unfit for purpose and meeting just 2 per cent of 1 bed SRS housing need

SDR 2019/20 published February 2021

This is one of the crises that comprise The Housing Crisis a phrase oft-stated by social housing types and lobbies yet never looked at in any detail.  The reason for that is obvious: The SRS has never built properties for objective housing need else this chronic mismatch between demand and supply would not exist. The social rented sector meeting just 2% of the 1 bedroom demand of the one bedded property for those of working age means that the private rented sector has to step in to try to meet 98% of the yearly demand for the ethereal one bedded property – is another direct consequence of the SRS never building for objective housing need in the 60 years of comparative subsidy aplenty in the post-war period until the Cameron administration slashed capital subsidy by 60% in 2010. 

It is never looked at or discussed as council and HA landlords are exposed to be unfit for purpose when it comes to housing need so it is deflected by scorn on the PRS which is often justified yet it cannot hide from the facts and the facts are the SRS has never built the 1 bed or had any inclination to do so

As I reported here those in a refuge having fled domestic abuse see just 2% of domestic abuse refuge residents offered a social housing property to escape domestic violence and abuse and get a fresh start. Last week’s budget (March 2021) also made it easier for the one-third or more of refuge residents who are single to be moved to the PRS now that 3-month refuge residence exempts them from the shared accommodation rate or SAR if they are under 35 years of age.

SRS landlords scream they have social purpose yet the facts paint a very different picture and the only purpose social landlords factually have is that they are not fit for it!

Zero Sum Game

Give the rare as hen’s teeth 1 bed to the rough sleeper and you deny it to the one-third of those in a domestic abuse refuge who are childless, and vice versa.  While housing allocation has always needed to be selective and purportedly meritocratic in priority terms for all housing types the chronic shortage of 1 bed properties makes this a farce and non-viable proposition.  With the social (sic) rented sector only providing 2% of the need it means 98 out of every 100 who need a SRS 1 bed property do not get one.  The facts are cold and hard yet they are the reality.

The SRS and its lobbies constantly berate the massive increase in the numbers housed by the private landlord yet that massive increase is caused by the SRS being unwilling or unable to meet the housing need of those who need or are only entitled to a 1 bed property.  There are some very valid concerns here yet the SRS takes no action to correct this situation as all proposals for new build social housing from SRS never include the 1 bed property at the social rent level – a fact that also means local authority housing strategies which they are mandated to do even when they have no council housing, and 60% of English local authorities have no council housing, are meaningless exercises and also unfit for purpose.

The English Housing Survey released in July 2020 records 386,000 single person households (individual or childless couple) who sofa surf in someone else’s home and states that 93% of these are unknown to local councils.  It also includes 155,000 sofa surfing household with children too and each sofa surfing household is a lodger who can be evicted and homeless with a 7 day notice letter with no legal comeback so these 541,000 households are in a permanent perpetual state of being legally homeless yet 93% of then do not factor into any LA housing or homeless strategy!

EHS – English Housing Survey 2018/19 published July 2020

It is rank duplicity for the SRS to bemoan the insecurity of the PRS when they themselves are unwilling to rehouse those who need a 1 bed by not building them. SRS proposals for new developments all fail to include the 1 bed property that the social housing demand data and fact obviate too.  The housing need of the prospective customer, the social tenant, is ignored and never considered even though housing need is the rationale of the social rented sector; it is their claimed social purpose and social ethos yet it is merely an illusion for marketing purposes.

The official waiting list figures reveal 46% and some 529k households waiting for the 1 bed property they qualify for and yet the SRS landlords are doing less than bugger all to meet this need!  Daily the housing and local media is full of the latest (future) developments from SRS landlords and they never feature the one bed property which is the greatest demand and need. 

The one bed property in social housing is a unicorn, as rare as hen’s teeth, and social landlords are as apathetic as you get in seeking to meet this need.  How does that meet social purpose or social ethos that SRS landlords claim they are imbued with and is their claimed rationale? 

If we genuinely want social (sic) housing to meet housing need – which is, without question, its purpose – then the SRS should see the vast majority of all new builds and new developments being the 1 bed property … yet that is NOT ever going to happen as SRS development is dependent entirely on the profit motive for the largest private housebuilders.  Council and housing associations rarely if ever build and they are reliant on the scraps that private housebuilders have to give them for new property and the 1 bed property is less profitable for the private housebuilder to develop ergo they do not build them. 

Social housing IS for those who cannot afford to buy that is its purpose and rationale yet the SRS has ignored the housing need of the single household in the entire post war period.

The SRS is now stuck with the family-sized homes it chose to build and now has a surfeit and weakening demand due to the overall benefit cap policy making family sized properties NO DSS properties as the benefit household will not get enough in housing benefit to meet the SRS rent levels so the benefit household is refused social housing on what they euphemistically call LETWA or Limited Entitlement To Welfare Assistance – that is NO DSS by another name – leaving the SRS as unfit for purpose and little more than a private landlord with the perks of at least some capital subsidy.

In summary, the SRS never looks at the facts and is content to let the structural problems created by their unwillingness to build the one bed property be someone else’s problem and then merely moan about the impacts such as the PRS meeting the demand when they choose not to.  This is one reason why the SRS is not a sector but a collection of 2000+ HA and council landlords who only look at their own parochial locale for housing issues and their umbrella lobbies ignore the reality on a national scale.  One of the those factual realities, just one, is a systemic and structurally chronic undersupply of the 1 bed property that leaves the ‘sector’ as decidedly unfit for purpose and working outside of its claimed rationale to meet housing need.

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PS A Tweet from MHCLG minister today and my terse response

The Bedroom Tax allocates social housing properties based on immediate presenting need and also means the waiting list figures are based on bedroom entitlement are accurate in terms of bedroom size. The Bedroom Tax has no room for household growth or shrinkage and does mean a newly married coupld get a 1 bed and have to move to start a family. Minister Pincher calls this optimisation not the structural disaster this is for community and neighbourhoold stability.

All the bedroom tax has done is reveal what the housing need is by bedroom size and exposes just how ineptly the social rented sector has addressed objective housing need for social housing. We will carry on regradless building family-sized homes as it is more profitable and convenient for social landlord finance directors even though it makes objective housing need all the more difficult to meet and a greater systemic and structural problem is the maxim of the social (sic) rented sector and the imbecilic Tory politician fond of superficial throwaway statements and policies.