A Guardian poll claims that nearly 80% of respondents agree with the statement that councils should charge high-earning social tenants higher rents. The Guardian quotes twitter comments including one saying people who can afford to live in the private sector should not be in social housing. ‘Simple. Irrefutable.’
The initial story that provoked such a strong public opinion and huge media coverage came from Westminster City Council. That in itself should raise suspicions. The Guardian leads its poll – and misleads its readers – with ‘facts’: that in Westminster 200 social tenants earn more that £100,000 a year and 2,200 earn more than £50,000. Who then could disagree with the policy they are proposing? But closer scrutiny leads to the information that the figures are estimates based on a survey carried out in 2006. There is no information as to whether these are single earners of couples (if both earn average wages, household income would be £50k) and whether lessees were excluded. Personally I just don’t trust this data and have put in a freedom of information request to get the calculations.
Westminster are using these ‘facts’ as a rapier argument to front their desire to have greater local powers to set council rents. Very successful bit of propaganda so far. But beware – they want the local power because they want to put their rents up for everyone not just ‘the rich’.
It is interesting to ruminate on this story. First, if the figures are correct they show a remarkable amount of social mobility in council housing (2,200 is more than about 1 in 6 of Westminster’s tenants). Well done council housing for helping people achieve their aspirations. Secondly, it shows that council housing, despite everything, can still achieve mixed income communities. Well done council housing. Thirdly, it makes an interesting change, even if it is dodgy, to see some Tories wanting to get rid of people it regards as rich when most of their policies, especially around local housing allowance, are about getting rid of the poor.
Fourthly, beware polls, even in the Guardian. People voted yes to a statement that social housing ‘should be available only to those who need it most and increasing rents for high earners would encourage them to move on’ – a totally different statement from the headline that 4 in 5 agreed that ‘councils should be allowed to charge high-earning social tenants higher rents’. So who was trying to prove what and for what reason?
Fifthly, there would be the small matter of implementation. To charge higher rents to some because of their income, the council would need to know and be able to verify the income of all their tenants. It would be dodgy getting housing benefit information for this purpose, and that wouldn’t identify high earners. I see armies of means-testers knocking on doors, sending out forms and making detailed verification checks. Even if some simpler means were found (eg higher rents for higher tax payers) the information would have to be transferred from HMRC or self-declared – and in any case would not ‘catch’ the 2 income household earning £25K each. And it would make the marginal rate of tax for a person passing the higher tax rate threshold totally unsustainable.
This is a well-worn path trodden by people who like to discredit social housing – there is a fine tradition of stories about council tenants with Jags outside the front door – but in my view it is totally unimplementable even if you like the principle. So, it has been a bit of a propaganda victory for Westminster, rekindling a few old prejudices. But even this government isn’t daft enough to do what Westminster wants. Or is it?