Social Immobility – Council housing to blame?

Red Brick was not the only one to comment on the government’s social mobility strategy.  Simon Jenkins in the Guardian also had a lot to say on the subject, but reserved much of his venom for council housing, saying: “It’s security of housing tenure that impedes economic migration and ossifies divides.” 

This annoyed our guest bloggerMonimbo, who writes:

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins appears to place most of the blame for Britain’s lack of social mobility at the doors of social housing, and the security it provides (6 April).  This is by no means the first time that social housing has been blamed for society’s ills, but Jenkins excels in attaching so much prominence to security of tenure and the availability of housing benefit.  Yet his own article shows some of the perversity of his argument. While calling for more mixed communities, he decries the fact that a well-paid trade union leader can still occupy social housing.  Isn’t Bob Crow an example of the kind of person needed by the ‘integrated mixed communities’ that Jenkins says he wants?

But the real problem is the fault he finds with security of tenure.  Whereas private tenants can be evicted after six months, social tenants can only be evicted through the courts, though of course they can and do move of their own accord.  It is ironic that most proponents of reducing security, which is a highly valued feature of social housing, would never dream of applying the same remedy to themselves.  Take secure tenure away and the result would be many more of the nightmare situations which Jenkins describes.  Yes, these conditions do exist in some unpopular estates where tenants vote with their feet and there is little sense of community, but these are in a minority.  Just consider the impact of higher turnover on the local state schools which he mentions, if pupils living in their catchment areas were forced to move regularly in the interests of ‘mobility’.

If Jenkins is unconvinced, let him ask about the effects of the highly mobile population that tends to occupy many council properties that were sold under the right to buy, and are now owned by absentee landlords.  In many cases, these are rented out to transient workers who move in and out and have no stake in the area.  Often poorly managed, they can be the focus of local problems and yet local authorities have fewer powers to tackle them than they do with households in secure tenancies.

While Jenkins is right to say there are not enough mixed communities, he doesn’t say how ending security of tenure would remedy this.  Nor does he recognise the intense pressure put on social landlords since the 1980s, through the failure to build enough homes and the need to concentrate ever poorer families in those available.  He calls social housing ‘subsidised’ but which tenure isn’t? – the last government spent over £1 billion annually subsidising home owners, for example, while council housing rents now pay about £100 million in surpluses back to the Treasury.

For half a century council housing catered for a range of income groups, and many of those struggling to become home owners would welcome it now – if there was sufficient available.  Of the 1.7 million households on council waiting lists, many are private tenants with very limited security.  Government figures show that fewer than one in five social tenants would prefer to be a homeowner; the number preferring to be an insecure private tenant is of course far lower.

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