Monday, May 21, 2007


The winner of this week’s ‘worst article in the Observer’ prize is Margaret Hodge. If you haven’t seen it, she calls for a ‘rebalancing’ of allocations for social housing to prioritise long term British residents over those in most need, which she says will lead to better tolerance and integration.

I suppose it is too much to ask for Hodge to have reflected on the last time that she had a bit of a public think about this subject, which helped the fascists get a few more councillors than they otherwise might have done. The problem is not that housing is allocated on the basis of need, but that there aren’t enough houses to allocate. (As an interesting thought experiment – would Margaret Hodge have been given a column if instead of writing about the allocations system she had been arguing for building hundreds of thousands of new council houses?)

If there is a waiting list of 5,000 (plus others who aren’t even able to get on the waiting list), and 100 properties to allocate each year, then fiddling with the allocations to try to discriminate against people who look a bit foreign (which is Hodge’s main suggestion, no kidding, to promote tolerance) will do nothing to reduce resentment. 98% of the people on the waiting list will still be stuck on the waiting list, and will assume that the council is lying when it says that the allocations policy has changed. Meanwhile, families in the most desperate circumstances will be trapped for even longer with no help of help. If, on the other hand, there are 5,000 on the waiting list and 5,000 or more properties available, then allocations policies stop being of interest except for racists.

Hodge suggests restricting access to social housing for economic migrants. Most economic migrants, of course, are young, single men and therefore don’t qualify for social housing anyway (I don’t know whether Hodge doesn’t know this or doesn’t think it worth mentioning). Economic migrants who are allocated social housing are those with children, living in massively overcrowded accommodation (if you have two children and you live in a two bedroom house, it is unlikely to be regarded as overcrowding sufficient to be a priority), and usually with significant health problems as well. The idea of preventing families in this situation from access to social housing will excite the worst sort of private landlord, but won’t do much for reducing poverty or ill health.

The column ends with a weird and plaintive bit about how immigrants ought to learn English and ought to go along to residents’ association meetings more. Hodge doesn’t find space to explain why she supports cutting access to English lessons for asylum-seekers and supports the promotion of faith schools, and it is deeply objectionable, even by the standards of the piece, for someone who is, astonishingly, still a government minister (though hopefully the next reshuffle will see to that) to write as if she is powerless to do anything about any of these issues and it is all the responsibility of the immigrants.

There is only one solution to the housing crisis, and that is to build a lot more homes where people want to live. The 100,000 eco-homes are a good start, but only a drop in the ocean of what is needed. It’s a big step, and might mean eventually ‘concreting over’ as much as 14% of the South East of England, up from a bit over 10% now. For people who don’t want to do this and aren’t able to grasp what is not really a very difficult area of policy, the idea that the solutions lie in the way that housing is allocated seems to have considerable appeal. It is like a racist version of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.


At 11:35 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of your finest.

What particularly annoyed me about this both yesterday and today was the lazy way it was covered, even in what might be termed the 'liberal' media, which seemed happy to repeat the idea, without explanation that priority was given to migrants rather than that the assessment was made based absolutely on *need*.

Never mind the incontrovertible fact that there isn't enough housing, far too many people seem happy to give space to the idea that, even so, too many *undeserving foreigners* are getting houses.

Is it really that crazy and left wing to think - never mind the lack of supply, lets distribute what we have based on need?

It therefore profoundly depresses me that even Crudas and McDonnell seem to be focusing on the former rather than the later argument.

At 8:34 am , Anonymous jdc said...

False dichotomy.

I'm all for building lots more houses, preferably in nice places (though beware of what happens to the political debate. when immigration stops making the lives of the working class worse and starts making the lives of the middle class worse).

Nonetheless, as the son of an immigrant, I think there's a legitimate sense of grievance about the substantial minority (yes minority, yes substantial) of immigrants who come to Britain with no intention of making a positive contribution, or indeed participating in British life, but simply on the take.

They may be very needy when they arrive, and that's certainly especially unfortunate for their children (who will have to be very lucky to escape growing up permanently excluded from economic life). But the main consequences of giving them more stuff are to validate their decision, and to anger both those who are paying for it, and those who have to go without to fund it.

Your hypothetical worked example is just that, a worked example. It may be true in a particularly overcrowded town. It's equally possible in some places that there are 1000 people on the waiting list and 800 houses, and the authorities are muddling through until five hundred destitute immigrant families pitch up.

Of course, the people who suffer most from this problem existing, but also from it being articulated - which is a bit of a dilemma - are immigrants who have never asked for anything.

What we really need, quite apart from building more houses and allocating them fairly, is an economic model which isn't reliant on encouraging mass immigration to keep wages down, otherwise we'll be permanently building to catch up.

At 12:36 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is nonsense - I feel a legitimate sense of grievance about the substantial minority (yes minority, yes substantial) of indigenous people who live in Britain with no intention of making a positive contribution.

But unfortunately they haven't given me the power to drive them into the sea. I suggest these indigenous people far outnumber the *worthless* immigrants you mention with such disdain. But as we all know people's contribution to society, or whatever it is to which you think they contribute (sports teams being the usual one that monoculturists harp on about), is fairly dependent on how they treated by that culture.

Attempts to appease grievances only serves to reinforce prejudice and undermine attempts to get the most out of immigrants, if their socio-economic *contribution* is all you care about. Never mind the unfortunate ones "who have never asked for anything".

Your point about inflation is completely true, but I have no idea what the alternative, particularly give the record of the left of the party backed by the industrial strength of the unions in destroying progressive government last time inflation was a problem. I have a feeling that most economic models depend upon population growth as a fairly important engine of expansion, Particularly important with an ageing population.

At 3:36 pm , Anonymous jdc said...

"I feel a legitimate sense of grievance about the substantial minority (yes minority, yes substantial) of indigenous people who live in Britain with no intention of making a positive contribution."

So do I. We're soft on them too - I'd be happy to advocate a one-in-one-out immigration policy if we can find somewhere willing to take our spongers.

"as we all know people's contribution to society, or whatever it is to which you think they contribute (sports teams being the usual one that monoculturists harp on about), is fairly dependent on how they treated by that culture."

Have we really treated Pakistanis that badly compared to Indians, and Black Caribbeans that badly compared to Black Africans, to explain their relative levels of engagement with wider society and economic success? How so?

At 4:16 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bizarre that you seem to be fixated on race still - rather than my point that it concerns how *individuals* as much as imagined groups are treated that is a major determinant of their participation. Whilst no expert on the area, I imagine a mixture of stochastic processes (such as order of arrival, prior culture and conditions, level of education etc), and geographical concentration all reinforced through the generations by varying levels of racism and a prevailing socio-economic climate that preserves advantages are much more powerful explanations than your frightening racial characteristics approach.

At 6:30 pm , Anonymous jdc said...

Well, only because I tend to regard the question of how someone is treated by 'that culture' as implying that we are talking about someone from a background outside that culture, otherwise we could just say 'society'.

To me "that culture" also implies the actions of the majority as primary determining factors, and that's why I questioned the vastly different outcomes, (yes, on average), of groups who have been treated in a fairly similar way by us. You identify some of the likely factors for this - and I think rewarding those amongst immigrant communities who want something for nothing, to the detriment of those within those communities who are trying to contribute, is one of those factors - and I know plenty of immigrants who feel the same.

At 8:16 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought this was also an excellent response:

At 9:10 pm , Anonymous jdc said...

Thought this was also an excellent response

I thought it was a fundamentally dishonest response actually, thus;

The response: her argument that an "indigenous" extended family should be housed ahead of a recently arrived refugee family with children...

The original article: There are a small number of confirmed refugees who, of course, would receive the same entitlements as British citizens. However, most new migrant families are economic migrants

At 6:54 pm , Blogger Ed said...

Reading this when I should be doing other things.

Here's a few other thoughts why the Hodge stuff - apart from tasteless BNP appeasement - is problematic.

She looks at the allocation of social housing. But it's not clear to me whether she is talking about whether councils should continue to have a duty to the same groups (e.g. the unintentionally homeless with young dependents), but that, when it comes to the allocation of the social rented property (invariably after a time in temporary accommodation), you give additional priority to those who have been in the UK the longest. Or, alternatively, whether there should be less of a duty to those who have been in the UK a shorter time (but have the immigration status to be here - otherwise they're not eligible for such support anyway).

If it's the former, then what she will do is end up piling up migrant families in expensive temporary accommodation. This would be a really clever wheeze to enhance community cohesion - in areas of high housing cost, this would leave them in, as one Head of Service at a London borough called it, a "new form of social housing which is entirely benefit dependent" - the rent is too high for those on lower incomes to ever afford without Housing Benefit. So there'd be more migrants on benefits, fewer in work. Really clever.

The second idea - apart from not making sense, because councils either have a duty or they don't - would presumably mean that migrant families were no longer eligible to be accepted as homeless and in priority need by councils. This would put families, with children, into the same destitute (and, incidentally, disgraceful) circumstances as are currently experienced by failed asylum seekers. So we could have children sleeping on the street. Or, more likely, families of recent migrants split, with the children in (expensive to provide) care, and the adults sofa-surfing.

The real solution is, just as Dan and co have been saying, on the supply side (though given the building constraints on London, and assuming some people always want to live there, the issue of the management of demand isn't going to disappear). What a surprise that the Observer's previous two lead articles on housing have been by Will Hutton: the first offering ill-informed suggestions, in a similar way to Hodge, about changing need categories; the second by, ahem, the same Will Hutton, arguing against building on the green belt.

There's a challenge for us in the Labour movement - taking on the selfish anti-development lobby, who force people of all ages into over-priced, over-crowded accommodation. An even more worthwhile prospect than watching wealthy ministers haranguing ethnic minority families in acute housing need.


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