The White Paper is right when it says that your landlord should treat you with respect. But what about your government?

Thursday 3rd of December 2020

Tpas policy advisor, Clare Powell blogs about the strengths and the gaps in the White Paper, charter for social housing residents. 

I’ve been hearing that the White Paper put tackling stigma in the ‘too hard’ box. But I’m not sure if that’s true. I think it might be that the White Paper has simply missed the point about stigma. And I’ll be honest, I’m not sure which is worse.

The White Paper talks about being more professional and treating people with respect, but it comes across as being all about those transactions; what people call the ‘customer interface’. 

Combatting stigma means so much more than good customer service or good manners – important though they are. It’s true there's a connexion between stigma and respect, but respect isn't something that just happens when we're face to face. Respect is about the way we make policy, and the way we plan our services as well as the way we deliver those services day to day.

So the White Paper is right when it says that your landlord should treat you with respect. But what about your government? At government level, surely the things we treat with respect are things that we choose to fund and prioritise. If we choose the defence budget over foreign aid, which do we respect more?

And if we choose to fund yet more home ownership initiatives rather than genuinely affordable social housing, do we respect aspiring homeowners, or do we respect people who make their home in social rented housing?

So tackling stigma is partly about money and partly about the policies we prioritise. But it's also about what we choose to celebrate and how we talk about people. It's fair to say that the economic impact of COVID-19 has changed the way that newspapers and politicians talk about people who struggle to make ends meet. Shop workers, carers, delivery drivers, hospital cleaners: The pandemic has really highlighted the value of roles that are too often filled by people on short term, minimum wage contracts without guaranteed hours. It's become clear that for many people hard work is not the route out of poverty that they were promised.

And with thousands having to claim benefits for the first time, we're hearing a lot less about strivers and skivers these days. We're also hearing less of the false narrative about subsidised social housing from politicians, although that could just be because we're hearing much less about social housing generally.

If politicians can celebrate key workers, recognise the value of community volunteers, and clap for the NHS, could they not also celebrate the homes that many key workers live in?

Could they not admit that genuinely affordable social rents make low paid insecure work that little bit less precarious, and can be a lifeline to the people who are putting their health at risk to support the rest of us? For lots of people, it’s social housing’s security and low rents that make work sustainable.

Damian Barr - a writer, columnist, and playwright who as it happens grew up in a council house - had one of the best quotes about the pandemic back in April when he said “We're not all in the same boat. We're all in the same storm. Some are on super yachts. Some have just the one oar.” In housing terms, the people struggling through the COVID storm with just one oar are living in overcrowded homes, with limited access to outside space, unable to afford proper heating. It’s a pretty leaky boat, and it's no coincidence that areas with poor housing also have high death rates from coronavirus.

If your job can’t be done from home, you’re at higher risk of infection, and if your home is overcrowded, it may be impossible to self-isolate. In times of infectious disease, good quality social housing isn't just an important economic lifeline, it’s literally life-saving.

Of course, social housing should be there for people in the greatest need, but that’s not all it should be. I'd love to believe in a future where genuinely affordable housing is recognised as part of our social infrastructure just like education and healthcare; enabling people to grow, fulfil their potential, and live long healthy balanced lives.  I'd love to think that massive government investment would support a modern equivalent of homes for heroes.

Not just today's heroes, but the ones that are still growing up and will become the key workers, health care workers, volunteers and campaigning footballers of the future. A future where high quality, affordable, environmentally sustainable homes are available for everyone that needs them.

COVID-19 has given us the first pandemic of recent years. It's unlikely to be the last. Let's hope that politicians keep up their new-found respect for the key workers that help us all keep going, and that it leads to recognition of the important role affordable housing plays in keeping them and their families safe. Of course, social housing residents are entitled to be treated with respect both by landlords and by government, but don’t imagine that’s going to get rid of stigma. Investing in social housing, recognising its value to key workers and others, and their value to all of us is what will help us leave stigma behind.

It’s a package with genuine benefit to our whole society. With the right investment now, we can be better prepared for when the next storm comes, and the heroes that help us through it can be in a better boat.

Follow Clare on Twitter here