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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

One hundred years of social housing – should it now be a human right?


CIH Cymru director Matt Dicks reflects on the history - and future - of social housing 100 years on from the historic Housing Act 1919.

In 1919, Parliament passed the historic Housing Act which promised government subsidies to help finance the construction of 500,000 houses within three years. As the economy rapidly weakened in the early 1920s, however, funding had to be cut, and only 213,000 homes were completed under the Act’s provisions.

However, the 1919 Act - often known as the ‘Addison Act’ after its author, Dr Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health – embedded a significant principle into law. For the first time, it recognised that government, at a central and local level, should play a central role in ensuring that affordable housing, at a decent standard, should be made available to all according to need.

Further Acts during the 1920s extended the duty of local councils to make housing available to those in need. Under the provisions of those inter-war Housing Acts, local councils built a total of 1.1 million homes. It’s a principle that has never left government of any political persuasion, further embedded by the great post-Second World War council house building programmes, a key element of the welfare state.

But in practice, have successive governments delivered on that promise? Does the fact that we have 60,000 people on social housing waiting lists in Wales, hundreds sleeping rough, and that thousands of young people priced out of the housing market, mean we are failing to live up to it to that singular commitment made by Addison all those years ago?

We also mark the centenary of this ground-breaking legislation in the shadow of the ongoing inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, where a clear link has been established between austerity, and the tragic events of June 2017, when 72 people lost their lives because they weren’t empowered to address the shortcomings in their housing provision.

Of course, great things have happened since 1919, not least the devolved Welsh Government’s commitment to the raising of standards in our social housing , and its continued commitment to that universal principle set out in 1919.

But clearly we have a housing crisis, so as we mark the centenary of Dr Addison’s legislation I pose the simple question – do we now need to adopt a rights-based approach to housing and fully incorporate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which includes the “right to adequate housing”?

They have started on the road towards that in Scotland, and towards the adoption of other rights contained within the covenant. In our submission to the independent review of affordable housing in Wales we’ve pointed to examples in Canada, South Africa and America where the right to housing has been enshrined, in different ways into the delivery of public services – something that we strongly believe must happen in Wales if we are to create momentum beyond the immediate political cycle. CIH Cymru has been working with Tai Pawb and Shelter Cymru to explore further how this can be done.

If we are to achieve the overarching desire outlined above, we must work and think along the lines of ‘one housing system’. That investment must seek to improve the consistency in what people experience across different types of housing tenure, whether that be social rent, private rent or home ownership.

In both Switzerland and Germany tenant households are more common than owner occupier households. This has led to a much greater consistency in the quality of homes and stability across the entire market in these countries. The latest OECD figures reflect that the share of people in the bottom quintile of the income distribution spending more than 40% of their disposable income on rent stood at 13 per cent and 29.1 per cent for Germany and Switzerland respectively, whilst for UK, the same figure stood at 59.2 per cent.

While no one tenure should dominate the house building programme, considering the acute issue being faced both locally and nationally linked to the shortage of affordable homes, the Welsh Government must become increasingly ambitious in this area. This will require the leadership to go beyond the political cycle of the Welsh Assembly and consider a cross-party approach to ensuring that the idea of access to a rented home, underpinned by a secure tenancy, becomes a common feature of our housing market.

Funding certainty has come up time and time again. Money is obviously important, and now even more so in the context of decreasing resources, particularly when we consider our colleagues in local government who are currently experiencing their eighth consecutive year of cuts. Certainty over social housing grant, a longer-term rent settlement, dowry funding and major repairs allowance and the supporting people programme are all crucial parts of giving housing professionals a stable footing on which to provide the progressive changes we all want to see.

Earlier this year, CIH Cymru in partnership with YouGov carried out a public perceptions survey of social housing and the results suggest we need to address the stigma surrounding social housing if we are to achieve any of what I set out above. For example, 47 per cent of home owners and 42 per cent of private renters said they would never want to live in social housing, while more than half of people living in both tenures said social housing estates suffer from high levels of anti-social behaviour and crime.

We would therefore urge the Welsh Government to consider housing need and demand in a broader context. While we can see the attractiveness of targets for affordable homes, this should be coupled by a narrative and complementary targets (spanning government portfolios where appropriate) which take into account people’s aspirations (how they want to live) and promoting well-being through housing. In addition to promoting the quality of the housing options available, closing that gap in perceptions which still sees some negative attitudes to social housing persist. 

  • This article first appeared in the Western Mail

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