Council rents: dodgy stats and dodgy conclusions

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?

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5 Responses to Council rents: dodgy stats and dodgy conclusions

  1. Sheila Manchester says:

    My comment on twitter that people who could afford to live in the private sector (owned, mortgaged, rented whatever) should not be in social housing was not a reactive soundbite but an expression of support for any initiative that echoes my longstanding belief that we have gone very very far over the edge of reason with the way we subsidise the ‘once needy’. I am absolutely in favour of helping those who need it – but it should be, surely, a limited support if the person or family is fortunate enough to climb out of the position of needing help. Common sense? Of course it is possible to implement – almost every other benefit is means tested – why shouldn’t social housing be?
    It doesn’t mean that everyone remaining in social housing would be ‘at the bottom end of the social scale’, how ridiculous, there is a huge gulf between earning nothing and earning a £100,000 per year. Nobody has a job for life anymore, why should you have a subsidised home for life?
    If people who don’t need help moved out (have they no aspirations to self sufficiency?) those in need would have somewhere to call home. Is that not fair, just and moral?

  2. Peter Benjamin says:

    Nothing else works like this- for example, if I am on benefits and then later get a job, I do not remain on benefits. My situation changes and I am deemed to be able to manage without these benefits. This is exactly the same with council housing- they are being subsidised by all so as people can manage- once they can why should they keep accepting everyone else’s charity that they don’t need? I hear (poorer) people stating the same arguments about going back to work and being better off on benefits- but they are shunned as workshy layabouts who will be forced… How is this different? It is not. It is the same thing. You get benefits until a time you do not need handouts. Just because these people are rich (now- mainly because they have had to pay practically nothing for rent for years, whilst everyone else is paying through the nose, in blood sweat and tears often), influential and have loud voices means that this ridiculous situation has been allowed to go on. It is exactly like getting a job, but remaining on job seekers allowance- cheating and stealing.

  3. Pingback: Shapps’ Eviction Proposals Are Bad News for Average Earners | Red Brick

  4. benlowndes says:

    The distinction between household and earner incomes is a point well made and something I had not picked up when I initially read the story.

    I don’t think such a move will happen anyway because – as you say – it would be so hard to impliment.

  5. Single Aspect says:

    How can you have a mixed community if you force all the people earning a significantly higher than average income, out of the housing? It’s a self defeating policy and I’m prepared to argue that it would be worth subsidising the rents of a few better off people on an estate simply to keep a balance of circumstances.
    Who wants to live on an estate where everybody is at the bottom end of the social scale, that’s a recipe for disaster and which is where this policy is headed.

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