It’s surely not coincidence that within the last couple of weeks we’ve had headlines in the Daily Mail blaming immigrants for the housing shortage and the Times front page calling for a curb on their claiming benefits (including housing). While you can read articles debunking each of these here and here, few of the people who’ve noticed the Mail or Times headlines will bother to check the facts.
We don’t know if the government was behind these newspaper stories, but we do know they are busy stirring up anti-migrant feeling with their Go home or face arrest adverts. The ending next December of the current restrictions that apply to Bulgarians and Romanians is being hyped as a potential disaster despite little evidence that many people from either country are poised to come to the UK. But there is enough manufactured risk of this happening to require David Cameron to promise a ‘clampdown’ on recent migrants accessing social housing within two years of their arrival, even if the latest census figures show that two-thirds of migrants who arrived in the last decade are in private lettings, and common sense should tell him that within two years hardly any will qualify for social housing.
The plans to force private landlords to make immigration checks (on over 1.2 million new lettings per year in England alone) are clearly as much about deterring legitimate migrants as they are about catching undocumented ones. The government impact study doesn’t even consider the possibility that the new rules might force legal migrants into the hands of unscrupulous landlords who are less likely to bother with the checks. Of course, the government says it is tackling the bad landlords through its beds in sheds initiative, but the press coverage it generates invariably links the campaign to removing illegal immigrants, rather than highlighting action to help the plight of those forced to live in such poor conditions. And far more migrants are living in dodgy conventional housing than are consigned to beds in sheds.
In a thoughtful blog this week, Alex Marsh asks whether ‘aggressive intolerance’ has become a substitute for an aggressive housing policy. He reminds us of something that Red Brick pointed out in response to a speech by Theresa May last year, that most housing demand is driven by the indigenous population. Yes, it’s true that net migration has a significant long-term effect, but if migration were to stop completely tomorrow we still wouldn’t be building anywhere near enough houses to meet the country’s needs. And as Alex says, the impact of immigration on the housing market is ‘as much – if not more – about super-rich individuals purchasing top end properties as an investment, thereby inflating house prices’ as it is about low-income migrants in the private rented sector.
As he goes on to say:
‘…the poisonous nature of the immigration debate allows an alternative “common sense” explanation for the housing problem to take hold. If you venture below the line on just about any online post relating to the UK’s housing problem – which, in general terms, isn’t something I’d recommend – it does not take long before a commenter will state that the origins of the housing crisis lie in uncontrolled immigration: if only we shut the borders and sent all these undesirable foreigners home then there would be plenty of homes for all the British people who have the right to live here.’
No one in government has said this, of course, but they don’t need to. There are plenty in the media and elsewhere that will interpret a ‘clampdown’ or Cameron saying (in March) ‘new migrants should not expect to be given a home on arrival’ as the signal to blame immigrants for the housing problem and create the new ‘common sense’ that Alex talks about.
Marsh suggests that housing researchers need to more actively expose what the real drivers of housing demand are and force politicians to engage with the issue. This might help, but it’s difficult to see it having much effect by itself. We badly need the Labour front bench both to keep on talking about the failure to build enough houses and to say why they are really needed. It’s convenient for government when they haven’t solved a problem to blame the victims (or the last government). However, in this case the real cause of the housing crisis is pretty obvious, if people can only be convinced to look beyond the headlines – and if the government’s use of the race card is exposed as being just that.