'It's nowhere near enough': How one council is trying to tackle its social housing crisis

Cllr Sharon Thompson from Birmingham Council spent three years as Representative for Housing. Credit: ITV News/Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame

For the past six months, ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt has been travelling the country uncovering the shocking conditions being endured by some people and families living in social housing – homes owned and run by local councils and housing associations.

In a documentary - Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame - to be broadcast on ITV on Sunday, he hears first-hand from residents being forced to live for months or even years in unsafe and uninhabitable properties - some are overrun by damp and mould, others have fallen apart in front of tenants’ eyes.

The documentary asks why some of the most vulnerable in society are being failed by a housing system that consistently ignores their concerns, fails to fix their problems, and offers them nowhere else to go.

One of the country's councils facing a rising housing crisis has admitted it's impossible for them to provide enough new homes to meet ever rising demand.

Councillor Sharon Thompson from Birmingham Council spent three years as Representative for Housing, she says there's "nowhere near" enough housing and a "huge amount" of people in need of a home.

There are 18,000 active social housing applications in the city right now. But the council, one of the biggest in the country, is only able to allocate a few hundred properties to new tenants each month.

"If we look back to 2018, we were in a situation where we were seeing so many homeless people coming forward that in one calendar month that would have been the equivalent of filling four 20 storey tower blocks per calendar month," Sharon says.

"We could never build at that speed."

Sharon Thompson spent three years as Birmingham Council’s Representative for Housing. Credit: ITV News/Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame

That gap, she says, results in people living in homes "not fit for purpose" and leaves other "living without a permanent home".

The numbers simply don't add up. Housing charity Shelter estimates 90,000 new social homes are needed every year in England alone, just to keep up with demand.

Last year only 6,000 were built.

"A city the size of Birmingham that has over 1.3 million people [and] 62,000 housing stock in terms of the council," Sharon says.

"Clearly, based on our waiting list alone, it's nowhere hitting the mark. So we need the government to change legislation."

Birmingham has 1.3 million people, and an overrun waiting list for social housing. Credit: PA

So where does the responsibility lie to house families in liveable, suitable homes?

Sharon calls on the government to do more - it is, after all, the government that funds councils.

"We need them to make it more financially viable for councils to build properties because at the moment the financial model doesn't stack up," she says.

That's a charge that the government denies.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told ITV News in July: "This is nothing to do with government funding".

"This is about neglect, this is about a lack of compassion and poor management."

The Housing Secretary said the crisis has 'nothing to do' with government funding. Credit: ITV News/Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame

The government says it has increased "English councils’ core spending power from £49 billion to £51.3 billion between 2020 and 2022."

Mr Jenrick described some of the conditions we'd filmed as "shameful" - blaming "the worst instances of councils and housing associations failures".

And what of the housing associations (private companies intended to be non-profit) which own 60% of the property stock afforded to councils?

Over the past six months, our investigation received countless complaints from residents of the country’s leading providers.

Each of them has since apologised, but who holds them to account?

One of the Housing Association properties we filmed during the investigation. Credit: ITV News/Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame

Following our investigation, a government spokesperson said: "We are using the experiences of social housing residents to inform our wide-ranging reforms of the sector, including reviewing the decent homes standard.

"Our reforms will drive up standards and give tenants a clear pathway to raise concerns."

How did social housing get here?

By the start of the 1980s, almost a third of Britain lived in social housing. The Conservative government, under then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, changed that.

Tenants were encouraged to buy their own council homes, and councils were discouraged from replacing them.

The policy meant the country's social housing stock began to drop drastically.

That continued to decline. In 2021, there are more than a million fewer properties than in 1980.

Councils now face a perfect storm with not enough houses and, after a decade of austerity, budgets to maintain existing properties have been slashed.

All this means demand far outstrips supply.

Watch more in Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame, Sunday 12 September at 10.15pm on ITV. It will be available to watch on catch up afterwards on the ITV Hub.

See more of Daniel Hewitt's reporting on the state of social housing in the UK.