Opinion

Investment in social housing is an investment in people

Let us commit to building more social housing and, at the same time, make it more equitable by helping its occupants to get out of poverty

John with Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Son director Lorna Tucker

For all the palaver around the budget there was little discussion about the housing shortage that affects the poorest – and even the children of the comfortably off and professional classes nowadays. As I said in parliament last week, our wealth is to be found in housing. Around 80% of bank transactions – virtually their entire activity – involve the buying and selling of property. No wonder most of the wealth in the UK is expressed through your relationship to property.

Property, property, property: your road to social mobility, getting as far away from poverty as is humanly possible, all relates to property. You are defined – increasingly so – by your place on the housing ladder. 

If there was an economic war to be declared on anything, it would be on the abysmal lack of affordable housing supply for a vast sector of the populous.

So property – housing – becomes a replacement for money in some ways. It becomes the currency of preference. And it becomes increasingly a political hot potato as second homes, empty properties, vast building programmes for offices and the fact that over one and half million people are looking for social housing become ever more pressing issues. Combining to hold back the solving of all manner of other needs in the UK – like sorting out the dire state of the NHS and matters like poverty entering the school classroom and running riot with the lives of poor people.

I spoke on the budget in a debate in the Lords recently and concentrated on the housing crisis that threatens to overwhelm us even more with the passing of the years. And I spoke particularly about social housing, with 90,000 such dwellings taken out of circulation in the last year and under 10,000 built to replace them.

I concentrated my talk, though, on the underside of social housing, a topic I have often focused on that a very small fraction of children in social housing ever get to finish their school leaving certificate or their A levels or get to go to college or university. That giving people social housing does not guarantee a secure foundation so that they and their children can prosper in society and get as far away from need as possible. That getting social housing is almost a guarantee that you are going to be economically on the edge of society, unable to have the full life that is desired for all.

Etched in my brain is the fact that only two per cent of those from a social housing background get out of poverty through education and skill enhancement. And with circa 70% of people in social housing being economically inactive (as unemployment is described), we need to address this appalling reality.

It has to be done by recognising that social housing needs to be transformed to enable people to have a fuller life, and not be caught in the margins of a permanent need, where the only inheritance that parents can give their children is their own inherited poverty.

Investing in social housing therefore has to be an investment in the children of those who are in social housing. And it has to be based on a new and deeper understanding of the role of the state in providing the mechanisms for social transformation in the lives of those in need. 

There has to be a completely new economics that starts with dismantling poverty, that invests in preventing the poverty that represents the biggest cost to us as a society. 

We must recognise that every underinvested, undersupported child will cost many, many times more than if invested in and supported at the stage when the ground they are to walk on in their future life is being decided on.

Is it not a difficult fact to face that if government spends circa 40% of its income on dealing with the collateral and direct damage caused by poverty, then it needs to reshape its priorities. We should be building poverty-busting budgets and looking at the true cost of poverty to society. Building budgets that enable us to shut down most of our prisons, make food banks a distant memory, and plan and scheme to this end. 

Let us invest in more social housing and make social housing more just by helping its occupants to get out of poverty and skill up their children to exit the need they inherit from their parents.

Over the coming weeks I will be traipsing around a few cinemas – Harbour Lights Picture House, Southampton (3 April), Hackney Picture House (17 April) and Cinema City Picture House, Norwich (24 April) doing a Q&A after the showing of Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Son, a brilliant film by Lorna Tucker, who was herself once homeless.

Among other things I will be talking about social housing and our need to help people make it a full-life experience, not simply a warehousing of people in need. 

If you get a chance to see this film then please come along and stay for the Q&A. And when the general election comes I hope you will join us at the Big Issue in calling for a vast increase in social and affordable housing, with a full commitment to making sure that housing does become the launch pad for a better life. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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