Time to listen to the ‘silent majority’

DSCN1037Is it time to listen to the ‘silent majority’? That seems to be one of the questions asked in a recent Fabian Society report entitled – Silent Majority: How the public will support a new wave of social housing. The focus of the report is public opposition to new housing as an explanation for why successive governments seem unable to address the growing affordability crisis in UK housing. Lack of public support for new housing, particularly social housing, is often used as a reason for not doing more, for why government shouldn’t be involved and why this is no longer part of what the local state should be focused on. The Fabian report seeks to dispel this myth, suggesting that nearly 60% of people would actually support more social housing and many would be positive about the government playing a key part in provision.

I’m sure this is a report that the current government will ignore, as it certainly doesn’t chime with their approach to social housing, where the state’s role is reducing, with less and less funding available, and reliance for affordable housing provision resting more and more with housing associations and the private sector.

There’s a further strand to the idea of listening to the silent majority and that’s to down play the amount of coverage and credence we give to NIMBYS. How about we stop and consider all those who are currently living in cramped and overcrowded conditions, in unaffordable accommodation, living miles from where they work, still living at home with parents, ‘sofa-surfers’ and others living in unacceptable housing circumstances because they have little choice because they can’t afford the alternatives currently on offer. How often do we hear from them? Sadly it seems that when we do, people in need of affordable and social housing are frequently depicted in a less than positive light, stigmatised by circumstance!

The Fabian report calls for passionate politicians capable of carrying clear messages to the public to change perceptions and to deliver the change we need. What hopes and signs are there that this might happen? Well in the build up to next years general election there’ll probably be lots of promises, indeed the Liberal Democrats have already suggested that local council’s should be able to suspend the Right to Buy in their area to protect existing council stock. A good idea particularly where waiting lists are long and where council’s are building new homes with public money.

But then we have the knee jerk reaction of other politicians to the notion that we should be building more homes – enter Brandon Lewis, Minister for Housing & Planning. Last week as we had the announcement of the winning entry for the Wolfson Garden City Prize the government immediately distanced itself from the proposals (is there an election in the near future then?) writing them off as urban sprawl and top-down imposition of housing on local communities that just won’t work. Indeed if that’s what the winning proposal had suggested I’d have some sympathy with the response, but it’s not. In fact there’s so many good ideas in all the shortlisted entries that the government would do well to take a proper look at them before defining their own policy. The existing process of allowing local councils and communities to decide where housing should and shouldn’t go quite frankly isn’t working in many areas of the country – something has to change.

Everyone seems to agree there is a problem, we’re not building enough homes and housing is getting more unaffordable. Where we don’t seem to agree is on what causes this problem and how to solve it, we get argument and counter argument along with initiative after initiative. But does anyone have a long term solution that will actually create the change we need? A solution that we can begin work on now so the problem doesn’t just get worse and worse – sadly not. Perhaps the election process will draw out more solutions? Although somehow I doubt it.