Sarah Webb on the messages taken from the CIH conference

Amid the 370 exhibitors, 11,500 visitors, 300 formal sessions and 100 speakers at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Harrogate last week, it was possible to detect two overall messages.

The first was perhaps best articulated in the address given by David Butler, the CIH’s chief executive. Echoing the words of the Treasury’s adviser Kate Barker, he called for “a better balance between housing tenures” and for “a choice to rent as well as a choice to buy”.

We have all grown accustomed to the assertion that 90% of us want to own and, as the minister herself demonstrated with a Dimbleby-esqe show of audience hands in her session, somewhere near this number of delegates already did so.

However, it seems right to ask the question: are we going too far in pushing people into home ownership? How quickly we have forgotten the days of negative equity and repossessions born of high interest rates. How easy it appears to be to ignore the record numbers of homeless households in temporary accommodation and the 5 million households living in private sector houses that fail the government’s oh-so-minimum “decent homes standard”.

At a time when a staggering 1.5 million older and vulnerable owners live in such non-decent homes, is it really right to be encouraging low-income households to own a 15% stake in a property for which they then have 100% of the repair and maintenance responsibilities?

The two most obvious reasons for the insatiable appetite for owner occupation are the collapse in other forms of investment, combined with escalating house prices, and the reducing quality and negative stereotyping of “council” or “social” housing. At CIH we are working on alternative approaches to both.

Have we have forgotten the days of negative equity and repossessions?

The second overall message from the conference was the need to take a new approach to tenure. David Butler also touched on this in his address by suggesting that “we need to start from a different point – not that one form of tenure is good and another bad but that each has a role to play according to an individual’s needs”.

What David was hinting at is a “tenure-neutral” future in which services are provided to people on the basis of their need rather than the tenure of their home.

Why is it that only owners benefit from the increase in the value of their homes when the greatest inequalities in our society are now based on the assets we own rather than the incomes we earn? Why is it that only tenants get support with repairs and maintenance when, as noted above, so many elderly and vulnerable people live in such poor-quality housing?

Perhaps there is an opportunity here for social landlords and private sector providers to come up with something. The CIH’s Harrogate 05 conference didn’t provide all the answers but it may have marked a watershed in the way we view housing.

Sarah Webb is director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing