Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Caroline Flint and social housing

Today's fiasco has been Caroline Flint's decision to 'start a debate' about whether social housing tenants should have to look for work or lose their homes. It is an object lesson in why it is a bad idea for government ministers to come up with policies which they haven't understood or thought through.

There were other, much more sensible things that she had to say in her interview. She restated the commitment to building new homes, including social and affordable homes, to overcome the housing crisis. This is a dividing line between Labour (who support doing this) and the Tories (who are fanatically opposed), and we should make sure that as many people know that as possible, and also actually get on with building these homes so that people notice the difference. She also had some sensible things to suggest about improving the local support and services available in deprived areas. Again, this is something which people overwhelmingly support, and which the Tories would cut (when the Tories go on about reducing public spending, this is the sort of thing that they actually mean).

That's all that I've got to say which is positive. She will have known perfectly well that all of the above would have been overshadowed by her message of 'if you live in a council house, you are a second class citizen'. It is stupid and obnoxious to stigmatise people because of who their landlord is, especially coming from someone who owes her own job and career to the consistent support over the years of millions of people who live in social housing.

As the Tories spotted, her proposal can't be enforced legally. Something that might have been worth thinking about before floating the idea. Of course, the law could be changed. That would either mean people being evicted from their homes, then turning up at the council and being reallocated somewhere else to live (after a stay in temporary accommodation at higher cost to the taxpayer), or people having to sleep rough and families being broken up and children taken into care. It seems that neither Flint nor any of her advisers actually stopped to think how her idea would work, or what the implications would be before announcing it.

One specific example of how this hasn't been thought through. Both the Tory Party and the government agreed recently that lone parents shouldn't face having their benefits cut if they have children under five years old. Under Flint's plan, a parent with a child who is six weeks old would have to look for work, and face losing their home if they don't.

The reason why many new social housing tenants are not in work is because there is not very much social housing available, and therefore it is mostly people who are in the most desperate housing need who get allocated social housing. For example, people with mental health problems, drug or alcohol addictions, or young children. A couple in work with no kids on modest incomes, many of whom forty years ago would have rented from the council, end up having to rent privately because social housing has been turned over the past thirty years into a special needs service rather than a viable option for people in work who prefer to rent rather than buy. Who are these employers who are going to hire someone with a drug addiction or, indeed, mental health problems? All the evidence shows that getting homeless people somewhere decent and secure to live is essential before they are likely to be able to look for work successfully. Flint's plan would specifically undermine this.

As an example of bait and switch, making sure that social housing will be for people who are out of work by not building enough new homes to keep up with demand, and then stoking a moral panic about how social housing tenants are out of work and threatening them with homelessness is hard to beat. It's worth remembering that it wasn't long ago that the government floated the idea of means testing to get better off council tenants (i.e. those in work) to move into the private sector, or since ministers were talking about encouraging home ownership for 80% of people, with social housing just as an emergency short term service for people fallen on hard times.

It's quite right to want to reduce unemployment and poverty in areas of social housing. There's no shortage of policies which would achieve this, from accessible and affordable childcare, to good local services, to changing employers' attitudes (because at the moment, many employers won't hire new social housing tenants) and boosting the number of jobs available, to increasing the amount of social housing so that a much wider range of people can choose to rent from the council or housing association. But threatening people with homelessness if they don't look for a job is not only a repellent idea, but a totally ineffective one.


At 9:33 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was quite an encouraging weekend really.The radio airwaves were full of the Wintertons and Mr Conway and the agenda had moved beyond Labour donations.What a good time to make sure major media outlets have every major housing and poverty charity rounding on Labour for attempting to re introduce the workhouse.Nice work Flint, as for the idea itself, I'm quite ashamed.


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