We need to speak up on behalf of our sector

The sector must do more to shape the narrative around social housing after Grenfell, says Carol Matthews, Riverside’s Chief Executive

The last few weeks have presented huge dilemmas for those of us working in social housing, especially for landlords who own or manage high and medium rise buildings.

And whilst our focus has rightly been on urgently assessing and minimising the risk to customers, a wider narrative is already beginning to develop in the media and amongst some politicians, fuelled by feelings of guilt and an instinct to blame.

Guilt because the country has woken up to the fact that people living in social housing have a right to do so in safety, and as their landlords we have a solemn duty of care to them. And because the offensive views of some commentators had been allowed to take hold – those who portrayed social housing tenants as shirkers and losers, rather than the diverse and vibrant slice of life that we now know to be the case.

Blame because it is natural to want to find out who or what is at fault, whether those organisations which were directly involved, or the legislators and regulators whose stock is at an all-time low. Clearly responsibility should not be shirked, but we need a sense of perspective to ensure it is appropriately attributed, rather than tarnishing a whole sector.

But another story is developing too – one of inequality: the contrast between the high tower for the poor, and the sprawling mansions below for the rich, with little in between. In the same way that the sinking of the Titanic was seen as a symbol of an unequal social order that was soon to unravel in the Edwardian era, could Grenfell become a 21st century symbol for the consequences of market economics as applied to social policy? Only time will tell.

So how do we respond? Do we keep our heads down and hope for the best – that, as individual organisations, we don’t come under too much scrutiny? Or do we seize the initiative and recognise that we are in a moment where the ‘wider world’ is genuinely interested in social housing, the people who live in it and its place in modern society?

I’d suggest the latter. We must, of course, look long and hard at ourselves and be willing to learn whatever lessons emerge from the Grenfell tragedy, but we must also have the courage speak out – on behalf of customers who do not have a strong voice, and on behalf of our sector which is sometimes flawed, but is overwhelmingly a force for good.

In doing so we need to tell a positive story of a sector as interested in quality as it is in quantity – that reached the decent homes standard for the vast majority of its stock years ago and reinvests a large proportion of its surpluses in programmed repairs. Of a sector that wants to achieve value for money, because a better use of resources enables us to deliver more homes and better services, but which does not habitually cut corners.  And of providers whose very purpose is to reduce inequality by giving people a chance of a decent home and of putting their life back on track.  

So rather than leaving it to others to tell our story, let’s work as one to reposition social housing, the people and communities we serve and the contribution that together we make to a fairer, safer society.

But as the old saying goes, we have two ears and only one mouth. So above all, let’s ensure that we continue to listen as well as speak, particularly to our customers. That means staying determined to seek out their views on the homes and services we provide, always responding positively to their ideas on how we can improve and treating complaints and concerns as a gift, not a nuisance. Let’s ensure that putting customers at the heart of everything we do remains the hallmark of our sector and the legacy of a tragedy we must never forget.

This blog was first published by Inside Housing on 28 July 2017