Six things to make housing sexy

As housing slips out of UK voters’ top ten concerns, senior consultant Ian Hembrow pinpoints six things to give it more public pulling power.

It affects absolutely everyone and is the biggest investment and decision that most of us ever make. Yet a recent Ipsos MORI poll shows that housing has dropped from seventh to 11th in the list of what people think are the most important issues facing Britain. So why isn’t this most basic of human needs top of all our concerns when it comes to voting?

As BBC Home Affairs Editor Mark Easton has observed: “Sadly, housing just isn’t sexy.”

Maybe it’s so fundamental to the fabric of our life experiences that it simply fails to grab attention in the way that chart-toppers like the NHS, the economy, immigration, terrorism, crime and education do. Most of the media and politicians seem to view housing as worthy but dull. The important but boring stage for life’s drama.

If this continues, then the crucial system reforms and step change in funding required to solve the housing crisis will remain a pipe dream. They will falter through lack of leadership, engagement and sustained support.

Here are six things to make housing more attractive:

1 Action! TV schedules are already awash with Escape to the Grand Amazing SOS Locations Under the Hammer and so on, but housing needs to be on the telly and cinema screens in ways that grapple more with its elemental role in shaping real-life stories. A few housing providers have ventured into the documentary world, but too often their work gets twisted into the sort of poverty porn epitomised by Channel 4’s much-criticised Benefits Street.

The difficulties young people now face are every bit as severe as those depicted in Cathy Come Home, which proved so influential in mobilising action on homelessness in the 1960s and 70s. So come on Britain’s sparky media talent: we need a new Ken Loach to reach out and seize public attention by the throat. Or at least let’s have fresh programmes and films that put community centre-stage in the same way as Coronation Street, Brookside, EastEnders or Shameless. The Great British Build Off? Strictly Bathroom?

2 Get angry. I’m not advocating civil disobedience or unrest, but it’s high time that we took to the streets to protest about the injustice and wrongheadedness that’s been allowed to wreck the housing choices of a generation.

The Homes for Britain rally in London on 17 March is a start, but this needs to be happening in every town and city. Let’s get to work on those banners and placards.

3 Join it up. It’s so obvious and apparently hidden in plain sight, that many people just don’t appreciate the link between housing and their top-rated ballot box concerns about income, wealth, health and society.

So, housing professionals should spend much more time focusing on jobs, skills, wages, crime, schools, care and wellbeing – and practically showing exactly how good homes can be the foundation for improving all of these.

4 Make odd stuff mainstream. I recently went to House of the Commons – a ‘radical housing solutions weekend’ in a suitably edgy, temporarily-occupied space. Impressive and inspiring as many of the grassroots projects and speakers were, the one thing they all craved was to be seen as normal. Innovative ways of meeting housing need should be acceptable for everyone, not just those perceived as being on the alternative fringe.

Established housing organisations should reach out and invite these co-operative, self-build, co-housing and other activists and pioneers into the warm. If the last 30 years (or 30 months) tell us anything, it’s that existing market structures and systems are broken. So we need revolutionary thinking and attitudes to become a mainstay of our future approach.

5 Get flexible. Our country’s cultural obsession with ownership (and the personal wealth it can create) has distorted policy, attitudes and choices for too long. This tyranny of tenure needs to end, with a determined shift to open up all sorts of flexible options to suit people’s circumstances at different stages of life.

So what if this means switching between renting, shared-ownership, outright purchase, equity-release and back to renting in the space of a few decades, in the same property? If it works and is what people need, let’s do it. The artificial barriers between different ways to consume residential products need to be torn down and replaced by completely flexible, whole-life options. Sure, current funding regimes, benefits and management systems aren’t set up for this, but with will and imagination they can all be changed.

6 Vote for it. Since all mass movements are simply the sum of their parts, we need to lead by example and make housing a deal breaker when it comes to casting our individual votes. If your preferred party or candidate isn’t saying or offering the right things about tackling the housing crisis, ask them why not. And if you’re not satisfied with the answer, tell them your vote is going elsewhere.

Democracy means politicians having to take notice of the things that people are concerned about. How else has immigration risen to the top of the Ipsos MORI poll, even though it’s a non-issue in vast swathes of the UK?

With a bit more energy, excitement and allure, housing can and should be up there too. Follow this six-step plan to greater appeal.

Ian Hembrow

About Ian Hembrow

Our housing and engagement consultancy lead. Ian is a former housing association director, and board member. He is also a qualified features journalist and works as an associate with Plain Language Commission.
Ian’s passion: dreams.