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.