A few months after I was born in 1953, my parents moved from the cramped accommodation in a shared house that they had been renting privately, to a 2-bedroom flat on a council estate. At last a home of their own – secure, a rent they could manage, comfortable, spacious, friendly neighbours. Compared with their privately rented rooms, not to mention their childhood homes, it was heaven! A similar experience has been shared by millions of people in the UK since social housing was first launched, at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, social housing has always played a crucial role, accounting for a third of all English housing by 1979. And yet, despite the immense good that social housing has done, it has often been viewed as ‘housing of last resort’ – poor housing for poor people – a chicken that came to roost with the Grenfell tragedy. Most governments have failed to invest properly in social housing, exhibiting instead a begrudging acceptance of its necessity rather than embracing its value and potential.

Here in Frome, our Community Land Trust is determined that the homes we provide will be for ‘social rent’, and that we should work – at least for our first project – with a social housing organisation that shares our community ethos. With house prices spiralling, many people have no chance of securing a mortgage and getting on the so-called ‘housing ladder’. In times when there was more government support for social housing – for example, as ‘heroes’ returned from the two world wars – people like my parents would turn to this sector for a decent, secure home. But today this option is unavailable for all but the most desperate. In Frome the amount of available social housing has shrunk, due to the Right to Buy and under-investment, and there is very little turn-over in the social housing that remains. And what of new housing? Although Mendip Council has a policy requiring all new housing developments to include 30% ‘affordable’, of which 70% should be for ‘social rent’, the reality in recent years has consistently fallen far short of this.

As a result, many people in Frome who desperately need a new home have three options. They can:

  1. Turn to the private rented sector, where they will likely face spiralling rents and relatively insecure tenancies.
  2. Remain in overcrowded and/or unsuitable accommodation, or sofa-surf, or skirt with homelessness, or continue living with their parents into their 30.
  3. Move out of Frome, away from their families, friends, support networks, communities, jobs.

And we should bear in mind that this unenviable choice is particularly acute for people on lower incomes (1), such as the carers and health workers whose ‘heroism’ we have been applauding on our door-steps during the pandemic. 

This is the ‘negative’ situation that the Frome Area Community Land Trust was set up to combat. But what of the ‘positives’ in our ambition?

We are intent on providing homes based on social rent, rather than ‘affordable rent’. The affordable category was introduced by the Coalition government in 2011 as part of its austerity strategy (2). It allowed social housing providers to charge up to 80% of ‘market’ rents (i.e. rents for equivalent properties in the private rented sector). The problem with affordable rents is that they are not genuinely affordable to many on lower incomes – and at the same time they tend to mask the inadequacy of actual social housing provision. By contrast, social rents are determined by a national rent regime, partly based on relative local earnings. Affordable rents are on average around 30% higher than social rents (3)

We are also enthusiastic about working with social housing landlords. Many housing associations and present-day council housing departments are a million miles from the image of the remote, paternalistic, poorly managed council housing of yesteryear. There are numerous examples of great housing associations providing hands-on housing management, helping vulnerable people, supporting their residents into employment (4), enabling community involvement, and building high quality, energy efficient new homes.

These are early days for the Community Land Trust. Our initial schemes may well be less than 100% ideal, but providing the desperately needed housing is about the art of the possible. We are excited by the prospect of helping build quality social housing, for social rents, in partnership with a progressive social landlord. The wonderful community spirit in Frome has made our little town an exemplar in many areas. Next stop: social housing!

Roger Saunders 9. 3. 21

1 The proportion of people in the poorest fifth of the working-age population who spent more than a third of their income (including Housing Benefit) on housing costs was 47% in 2017/18. In contrast, only 3% of the richest fifth of the working-age population spent more than a third of their income on housing costs. (Households Below Average Income, DWP, 2020)

2 The government’s principal aim in introducing ‘affordable rents’ was to reduce the government’s benefits bill.

3 Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2018)

4 ‘Housing Work: Assessing the Impact of Housing Association Employment Support’ – University of Salford (2019)