“Perspectives”: Lucie Barnes discusses social housing and social mobility


The PLA Essay Competition always produces interesting views and perspectives from our membership. This year was no exception, with Lucie Barnes from Baines Wilson LLP writing an thought-provoking piece on social housing and social mobility.

In the piece below, Lucie explains why she considers this to be such an important issue. Please note that the views expressed are those of the author, rather than being those of the PLA.

British summertime seems to be living up to its reputation this June, and all I can think of is the well-known phrase “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”. Google tells me this is from the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when a sailor is surrounded by salt water that he cannot drink. Maybe it’s my age as to why I don’t know where the phrase originates, maybe it’s my ignorance. It’s probably a bit of both. In any event, it’s a decent metaphor not only for this wet and windy politically-charged June, but also for where we are at with housing stock in England, social housing in particular.

Social housing plays an important role in supporting many people across all ages, races and creed. It does so, because it affords a safe place for people to have as their home, where they can live in peace, raising children, caring for the sick and disabled etc., and it is a place where the elderly can live in what we hope is not poverty. Many of us fail to make the connection from the importance of a country with decent rented social housing stock, to social mobility. That is not to say that empowering people to own their own property (as previous government policies have given in social housing), is not also important. It is however, important to recognise that decent social housing stock, where people can live with lifetime tenancies, is a fundamental pillar of our democratic system, which supports social mobility. It is also, unfortunately, where we are lacking at the moment and have been for some time.

Just this month, we have heard how the ‘buy to let’ scheme has failed to address the short stock of housing in giving first-time buyers the opportunity to get on the property ladder, which was going to be a good pointer for social mobility in the near future. The failure has been in the predominate result of the scheme, which has been for those already on the property ladder able to use it to “buy up” into larger, more expensive homes. I would say that this is not in and of itself a defeat for the scheme, since, by those moving up the ladder, the result is a releasing of cheaper/smaller properties being freed up to the market. That said, I think we all struggle with a taxpayer-backed scheme only helping those already able to help themselves, as well as developers to record profits. However, if we stick with the premise that the scheme has at least, in theory, freed up some housing stock, this is a good thing for the market (in spite of it no doubt being an unknown consequence of the scheme), although done nothing for social mobility.

A lack of social housing is having a damaging effect on social mobility, because one of the consequences is voluminous numbers of people in the private system, who probably ought to be in social housing. Just recently we are seeing further manipulation of the private rented sector with the proposed abolition of ‘section 21’. Such a move is not necessary and is another crude fudge to attempt to bring increased security of tenure to residential tenants, many of whom should not be in the private rented sector.

The present situation is not only reducing stock in the sales market and failing to support those first time buyers that ‘buy to let’ ought to have helped, it is also hampering the ability of generations to get through school and university in relative peace and security, to be solid partakers in society. Couple this with the attempt to remove the security afforded to social housing tenants by taking away lifetime tenancies, we are moving towards a heady mix of Dickensian housing stock.

A progressive attitude towards social housing is needed. Volume of stock (modular homes could be key) is now a necessity, as is the abolition of “flexible tenancies”. I would also argue for a social housing tenant’s right to buy, but with a number of restrictive covenants to limit abuse of that system.

If a progressive, global approach is taken to housing and social housing in particular, the relentless fudge of legislative intervention is likely to cease. Who knows, the unknown consequence (tongue firmly in cheek) might also be positive social mobility?

Lucie Barnes

Baines Wilson LLP