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The Policy Ask with Polly Neate: “If people aren’t angry with me, I’m not doing my job properly”

The chief executive of Shelter on dealing with abuse from men’s rights activists, the Grenfell tragedy and how to solve the housing crisis.

By Spotlight

Polly Neate is the chief executive of Shelter, the charity formed in 1966 to campaign for tenants’ rights in Britain. Shelter lobbies national government and local authorities for new laws and housing policies, and provides advice and advocacy services for people in housing need. Before joining Shelter, Polly was chief executive of Women’s Aid, and also formerly worked for Action for Children.

How do you start your working day? 

I start my day doing my social media with a cup of tea in bed. It’s part of my job but I don’t have time once the official working day has started. Following a climbing accident last year, I do my physiotherapy and a workout for about an hour. Then I’m ready to start what I think of as “work work”.

What has been your career high?     

Joining Shelter. I still can’t believe I’m doing my dream job. And I’m hoping the highlight of this job is still to come, when this country starts building the social homes that people on low incomes can actually afford to live in.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?   

When I was CEO of Women’s Aid, I was used to getting a lot of hate from men’s rights activists on social media. But when it spilled over into real life (my house was egged several times and my tyres slashed), I found it really difficult. Nowadays, I mainly just get landlords having a go at me online. If certain people weren’t angry with me, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?    

Know yourself. I think self-knowledge is the key to good leadership. It means learning not to be afraid to take pride in your strengths (especially women, who are socialised not to show off or own our ambition), and not being afraid to admit and manage your weaknesses.

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Which political figure inspires you, and why?   

I’ve always been a huge admirer of the former politician Clare Short who called for Page Three to be banned. When I heard her on the radio when I was just a teenager, arguing against it in parliament and being shouted down, it opened my eyes to the power of patriarchy. I thought, “Hang on, why are all these men shouting for the right to look at boobs in the newspaper?” It was a moment of shock and realisation.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

Michael Gove is dead right to legislate to improve standards in social housing – the lessons of Grenfell must be learned and acted on. This is down to the tireless campaigning by Grenfell United and many others. While it’s been a tough journey for them, the Social Housing Regulation Bill will help social tenants have a voice and hold landlords to account.

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And what policy should the UK government ditch?   

The fact that people on low incomes simply can’t afford a decent home is creating an emergency, with obvious solutions that are being wilfully ignored. The so-called Affordable Homes Programme is Orwellian in the way that it wastes time and money on building homes that are completely out of reach for most low-income people. Instead, the government should invest in building genuinely affordable social homes with rents pegged to local incomes.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Renters’ Reform Bill is set to be a game changer, when the government finally brings it forward. Right now, millions of renters are paying through the nose to live in dangerous homes, too afraid to complain in case they get kicked out. Done properly, by introducing a national landlord register and scrapping no-fault evictions, it will bring private renting into the 21st century, giving renters greater safety and security in their homes.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?   

Our problem is ambition; other countries see housing as the foundation of a good life and provide the long-term investment needed. Take Vienna, the world’s “most liveable city”, where housing is seen as a human right and more than 60 per cent of people live in social homes. There’s no reason we can’t do the same here. A stable, affordable and quality home is everything – it’s the bedrock to education, work and good health.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

I’m cautiously optimistic that the government will make good on its promise to reform private renting this year. So if I had a magic wand, I’d pass a law making the government build the 90,000 social homes a year needed for the next ten years. This would change the lives of the 1.1 million households who are stuck on social housing waiting lists and would help to end homelessness for good.

[Read more: “Housing as a basic human right”: The Vienna model of social housing]