Monday, February 19, 2007

Will Hutton wins Observer contest for stupidest article

Each week, the Observer runs a contest called 'the comment section' in which its columnists compete to write the stupidest article. This week's edition was the toughest ever (Nick Cohen didn't even get a look in). There was Cristina Odone on how people she knows have got the flu, Paddy Ashdown on the need for more military intervention, Quentin Letts in defence of useless old Tory MPs, someone called John Dodd on how banning fox hunting is bad for foxes, and Henry Porter on why people should be allowed to buy peerages, like his relatives did.

But none of these really stood a chance of winning the week's most stupid article. For this week, Will Hutton was writing about council housing. He had read a book about how council housing was bad, and therefore was arguing that we need to unmake council housing, whatever it takes, or expect more teenage murders in South London and children's well being to fall even further behind that of other countries.

Even a sub Thatcherite hack in a hurry might balk at some of what Hutton says. Council housing is "a living tomb". If people who live on council estates "are lucky, there might be a branch of a further education college on the estate where [they] might learn catering or hospitality skills. Otherwise, a life on benefit or, if you're a woman, bringing up children on benefit, awaits." In the comments, someone asks Will Hutton if he has ever lived on a council estate. Judging by this article, I don't think he's ever even visited one.

But smug rich newspaper columnists pronouncing about issues which they know little or nothing about and revealing their prejudices in the process is hardly exceptional. What really marks this article out are the solutions offered for this great crisis. He has two ideas (in fairness, only one of these is his idea, the other he has borrowed from a government adviser). The first is to think about time-limiting tenancies - i.e. evicting elderly council tenants after they have lived somewhere for a certain number of years so that young professionals can move into their homes. I guess in Will's world, living on the streets is better for the elderly than being in a living tomb or something - at least then they are not dependent on the state or something.

The other idea is "to allow tenants to own, say, a fraction of the value of their home which they could sell for a fat profit. And it might be a young, middle-class couple who bought the stake as their first step on the housing ladder."

As Ed said when he read the article, people who have bought, say, 20% of the stake in their house and then sell it at double won't be able to afford to buy anywhere else, and presumably they can't move on in the council sector. So either they continue to live in the house along with the young, middle-class couple, or they move out and rent privately at much higher costs. It is very hard to imagine a problem for which this is the solution.

On one level it doesn't matter that Will Hutton's engagement with housing policy is such that he apparently doesn't understand that if people sell a house then they have to find somewhere else to live. But what he is saying, however confused and illogical, reflects the prejudices of the people who make decisions about the future of social housing. Given the scale of the housing crisis, it is sometimes tempting to imagine that any reforms must be better than the current situation. Reading this article makes clear quite how wrong that is.

After the Second World War, Nye Bevan insisted on a policy of building council houses which were at least as good if not better as those in the private sector, and which working people would want to rent (a policy, of course, ended by the Tories). Sixty years on, many of those houses are so desirable that they are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and yet the arguments and prejudices which were discredited in the 1930's are ones which shape the views of government ministers and advisers.


At 10:41 pm , Anonymous Ed said...

Great points, mate (and thanks for the acknowledgement!).

Three thoughts:

1. The time-limiting bit (not sure if you meant this bit came from a government adviser, btw - it does - but so does his other clever idea about buying stakes in social housing, which Ruth Kelly's just recently announced an extension of, for a pointless but not especially destructive variation on social homebuy) is half-interesting. You could tinker with the rules on tenancy succession - making the rules more robust would upset people but free up a bit more housing stock. Pretty much tinkering at the margins. Or, yes, you could time-limit access to social housing, so people needed to retain priority-need circumstances (young dependents, say, or medical vulnerabilities) in order to keep qualifying. The problem is that would make the social housing population even more transcient and in sharp housing need than it already is, which can't be his aim, and which goes in the exact opposite direction of what he wants to do. Which is ...

2. What he has said in his previous musings on this (they would have been forgettable if they weren't so silly) is that social housing should be more general needs, less "special needs" focused, so not just focused at those in priority need, but those on low and middle incomes more generally. This is fine, and a very popular demand. Unfortunately, he tried to marry this with his opposition to the only way of actually doing this (which is building more, by relaxing the green belt) and instead argued that you should bin the priority need categories ... so we'd have kids separated from their families or on the streets. Not clever.

3. It is striking and depressing that this drivel is the extent of sensible coverage of housing in the mainstream sections of the so-called quality media (there are good articles in some specialised sections). Yet it's an area that affects millions ... and I'd suggest that the amount of serious work undertaken by, for instance, non-specialist think tanks mirrors this paucity. Compare housing with, say, coverage of the future of the second chamber, which is also jolly interesting but has rather less immediate impact upon most people. Maybe some of our self-appointed thinking classes should open their own gates and get out a little more.

At 1:16 am , Anonymous Tim said...

Agree with everything you say but it was actually Dalton, to his shame, not the Tories, who brought down house size after Bevan.

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