Social housing was born out of the Victorian slums and was aspired to by millions until the mid-1960s.
It has to be recognised that the Thatcher government struck a chord with the right to buy and ownership is now the preferred option. But there is still a need for social housing.
Since becoming a councillor, my casework has been dominated by housing issues. There are around 9,500 people on the council’s housing waiting list. I see people trying their best, in most cases struggling with illness, minimum wage and dependency, trying to make life work for them.
And somewhere along the line there can be complaints that there are other members of our society who will ‘just be handed properties’ and seem to be jumping the queue.
For a new, Labour administration that is hoping to make Newcastle a city fit for purpose, this is not a healthy thought for our residents.
Social housing should not be seen as a last resort, but as one of several options. Apart from the big problem of how to build more homes in this climate of austerity, what we can work on in the shorter term is the perception of social housing.
Newcastle’s new policy, which should come into effect later this year, will go some way toward doing this. Under it you will be deemed to have an urgent need for housing if, ‘you need a house to take up education or a job, especially if you have been reliant on benefits, and if you couldn’t move it would result in hardship’.
If tenants contribute to their community they will have greater priority to housing in that area.
Our new IT system, coming online along with the new policy, will help people look for a new job, or help them understand what benefits they are eligible for.
Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow welfare minister Liam Byrne recently took this idea further by suggesting we support and prioritise people helping their communities in other ways, such as volunteering.
All this could change the stigma of social housing. If others feel their neighbours are as hard-working or ‘deserving’ as ex-servicemen, for example, as they feel they are, then we can hope that this will lead to greater trust between neighbours and therefore safe and healthier communities.
The only problem, of course, is that for every act of positive discrimination, other people will be negatively affected.
We need to ensure that those with other priorities, but who are unable to contribute in this way, do not feel they are being punished.
The trick will be trying to make it work fairly for everybody and for it to be seen to be working fairly by everybody, as expected.
If we go down this road in Newcastle, our new, fairer approach to housing will need to include residents’ views on how it can best be implemented.
Helen McStravick is deputy cabinet member for housing at Newcastle Council