Friday, January 19, 2007

Social Housing

I was trying to find out what Jon Cruddas' policy on housing actually was - it is an issue which he has quite rightly highlighted as of great concern to a lot of people. I found a commitment to supporting Shelter's campaign calling for an extra 20,000 social rented homes per year, but not much else in the way of detail.

So here's my question. Social housing is no longer provided to meet general need, as it was fifty years ago. It is, by and large, only people in priority need who are allocated social housing. It is a sign of the appalling situation that there is a massive shortage even to provide enough housing for this purpose, and clearly building to meet this need is something worth supporting.

But building 20,000, or even double that, units of social housing will do little or nothing for the people who Cruddas suggests are switching to the BNP over the lack of housing - typically people who grew up in a council house which their parents bought, but who now have no hope of getting a council or housing association house, or of getting a mortgage. If anything, a massive building programme which helps rehouse families living in overcrowded accommodation, lone parents and people who are statutorily homeless but does nothing to meet general need is likely to increase, rather than decrease, resentment.

I am old fashioned, so I would like to see a return to the days when social housing was a much larger proportion of Britain's overall housing stock, and people who are not in priority need and earning average wages could realistically expect to be housed by the council, if that's what they chose. But even I accept that the reality is that there is an overwhelming preference for people to be able to own their homes rather than spend their lives renting. There are some direct trade-offs between providing housing for people in work to buy at an affordable, and providing for the most needy to rent, and to increase supply to meet both sets of demand would require a much larger building programme than Shelter are suggesting.

What worries me is that the call for 'build (some) more social housing' and 'let councils borrow to do up their existing council houses' are measures which are presented as a solution to the housing crisis, whereas they are good ideas but only a small part of addressing the problems that concern people. Reforming housing benefit, for example, should be a good opportunity to correct a horrendously complex and inefficient system, but instead the government's current plan is for a new stupid system called Local Housing Allowance (which involves paying claimants a flat fee and getting them to shop around in the housing market, rather than paying landlords the full cost of the rent directly), which apart from its intrinsic problems will do nothing to address the problem that Housing Benefit is one of the biggest benefit traps stopping people from working (because people are better off on benefit than working and paying the much higher rent).

If we could get a set of policies which end or substantially reduce the housing crisis, then quite apart from cutting away the support for the fascists and boosting our own fortunes, we would help to reduce one of the main sources of misery for millions of people (I imagine that many councillors find, like I did, that housing-related casework was the largest part of their caseload). But its one that I'd certainly like to hear more about from the different contenders for the deputy leadership, and simply identifying the problem isn't enough - they'll need to have some imaginative solutions to get my vote.


At 7:40 am , Blogger HenryG said...

'But even I accept that the reality is that there is an overwhelming preference for people to be able to own their homes rather than spend their lives renting.'

There may be a strong cultural preference in the UK Don, but that's not the case in say Scandanavian countries. This isn't helped by the relatively poor standard of UK social housing over the last 20 years. That said, I think it's a good think that most working people have assets to their name.

I don't know what the specific solutions might be - this isn't my speciality, but I'm glad that Cruddas has put council owned housing on the agenda - I can't imagine the other candidates uttering such 'unfashionable' views. Let's see what he has to say in the weeks and months ahead.


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