Ed’s error – opening the social housing allocations can of worms

I supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership and I firmly believe he will become the next Prime Minister.  But in my policy area, housing, I think he has just made a major policy error.  His people should realise that you’re politically in the wrong place when you share territory with Tory Westminster Council.  In the land of Lady Porter they have been looking to export their poorest people for many years, long before the Coalition’s housing benefit policies were described by Boris Johnson as ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’.  By stressing employment as a factor in social housing allocation, Westminster’s new housing allocations policy is just a more extreme version of what Ed is suggesting.

Regrettably, a couple of Labour boroughs have also taken up the theme that they have too many unemployed and poor people and that they should live somewhere else (where? is not a question they ever answer).  Now they have cover – the Labour Leader approves that they should by allocating homes to people who make some kind of vague contribution to society.

As with the argument about evicting rioters whose family are council tenants, there is no rhyme or reason as to why this special preference should be targeted at social housing.  Why isn’t it a requirement in other policy areas as well?  For example, only people who make a contribution to society should get free health care or have their bins collected or go to Oxford or get pension tax relief or be able to drive on motorways.

On these grounds, bankers, journalists, many politicians and anyone called Murdoch would fail to qualify for any services at all.

Over many years politicians and the media have been good at saying who should get social housing.  But ultimately, with extreme shortage, if you want to change priorities it is dishonest just to say who you think should get the homes: you also have to say who will NOT get them as a result of your new policy.  Vague statements, reminiscent of the old distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, or the poor we like versus the poor we don’t like, make bad policy.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of housing allocations knows that only people in extreme and acute housing need get anywhere near being allocated a social home.  I would set Ed Miliband a test: go into an allocations department, look through the cases, meet up with the people concerned and then pick the family that will not get a home because you have decided to allocate it to someone who has less housing need but meets some test of their ‘contribution’.

Allocating extremely scarce housing has to be done transparently against clear rules, and judgements are often subject to Ombudsman cases or judicial review.  So vague principles are not enough.  How many points will ‘being in a job’ be worth compared to being overcrowded to the point where your health is failing and your children are falling behind at school?  How many points will ‘being a school governor’ get compared to having a severe disability and high medical priority?  How will you deal with people who were in work but had to give up because of redundancy or age or illness?  Will you revert to the 1950s test where inspectors came round to judge your housekeeping standards before you got a home?

Believe me, Ed, this is a can of worms you will regret ever opening.  And I suspect you only got into it because it is a policy where it feels like you can make change without it costing anything.

There has been a lot of talk at Labour Conference this year about offering apologies for the failures of the last government.  New affordable housebuilding was the Titanic of policy failures, only addressed towards the end of our term: if we want to impress the electorate with our housing policies we have to talk about how we can build hundreds of thousands of additional homes in the future.  Rearranging the deckchairs on the housing allocations sub-deck is a futile gesture and a diversion from the real issues in housing

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8 Responses to Ed’s error – opening the social housing allocations can of worms

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  5. Thanks for the comments on a tricky subject. Just a few points in reply.
    First, unemployment amongst social tenants is too high but not as high as people think. Economic inactivity is high but this is because there are a lot of retired/disabled/vulnerable people – people who do not deserve to be stigmatised as ‘not making a contribution’. Their presence in social housing means it is doing it’s job.
    Secondly, especially in high demand areas there are no longer mono-tenure estates, virtually all estates are mixed tenure and it is the transient residents who are often the biggest problem, not the tenants on low in-work or out-of-work incomes. Virtually all new housing is mixed tenure estates where there are not concentrations of the poor.
    Thirdly, I have always supported intermediate tenures in the past (as Dan suggests) as a crucial part of mixed development. But the Tories are ONLY producing intermediate rent and get away with calling it ‘social housing’.
    Fourthly, differential rents according to income is a problem because we would have to means test everyone not just HB applicants, a recipe for intrusive red tape that wouldn’t produce a lot of extra rent.
    Fifthly, allocations points systems are generally transparent but never feel like it to the customer. Adding in vague ideas like who makes a ‘contribution’ to society will make it far worse and a lot less fair on those who are unable to work for reasons other than idleness – the huge majority.

  6. Jacky Peacock says:

    I can recall a similar debate around allocations when I first became a councillor in the 1980’s. It’s been re-surfacing every few years ever since. Why can’t anyone come up with an answer? For the simple reason that it’s impossible to devise any housing allocation policy that is ‘fair’ when there is such an acute shortage (though Choice Based Lettings is a small step in the right direction). The gap between supply and demand has been widening for as long as I can remember. So in the words of a very rude speaker at the Shelter fringe meeting in Liverpool this week, the answer is “More f*****g housing!”

  7. Build more council houses for (subsidised) rent thus slowly but surely allowing the allocation rules to be relaxed from people in desperate need back to the situation that existed before right to buy when anybody could apply for a council house or flat, including single men, and stand a good chance of getting one.

  8. Dan Filson says:

    In general, I agree with Steve on this. But….
    I believe in a social mix in public social housing but it is hard to achieve especially if right to buy offers tenants a chance to buy, sell and move; which many who get jobs, and could afford to, do. That not only destroys the social mix, it also strips out the more desirable dwellings, those with gardens, those with fine views and generous internal space.
    It cannot be healthy for housing to become welfare housing, where all who are left are poor, unemployed, unemployable or pensioners; or are placed there because they are at risk, for example those leaving care. The only way residents would come into contact with people in the world of work would be when their children get jobs, which with a welfare housing address on their CV may not be so easy. And given overcrowding, those youngsters will fly the coop if only they could.
    Nor is a sound social mix achieved by holding places for “priority workers”. Who is to say that a primary school teacher, a nurse, a children’s nursery assistant etc are more deserving of a place on an estate than a junior civil servant, a shop assistant, a street cleaner? Or that those in either group are in greater need than the unemployed, pensioners etc.?
    Perhaps the answer is differential rent levels, whereby those who are in work pay more, even before housing benefit, than those who are not. This could be criticised as enabling people to buy into something that is scarce. That is true. But what alternatives are there? Consider someone who is single, has retired after 4 decades of work but is not yet of national insurance pension age. The person receives a public service pension, but it is half the salary they previously earned, and they have no savings. They are caught in a half-way hell, of having too great an income for housing benefit and too low an income to afford private sector housing in the area they live. Should the retired be forced to move away from Greater London when those on benefits are not and those in better paid work are not? Perhaps a rent below the free market rent but above what is charged to the generality of tenants might work.
    Housing allocation is indeed a minefield, but unless we restore faith in a modern equivalent of the old points system, which has transparency and be seen to be fair, we will still have jealous, complaints and accusations of favouritism about the system. So, Steve, what’s your preferred housing allocation system for areas where housing is in acute short supply?

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