Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint are pursuing the right strategy for social housing as the announcement to give working people more access to social housing shows.
It is right that Labour members, supporters and councillors should be concerned about those vulnerable and in need. There is absolutely no denying that if a working household gains access to a social home it is quite possible that someone facing greater need will not have that home.
But there is a stronger political argument that goes beyond the policies of dealing with housing need today to ensuring the state can provide for all in the future.
Risky thing to say, I know, but here goes:
The public provision of housing, services and welfare is under sustained attack from the right. Those attacks are proving successful, because those public goods and in particular government’s administration of them has been losing legitimacy in the eyes of the majority.
This is not a fact to be disputed – polls show it and set up a street stall in your local high street and you’ll hear it. People believe they pay in more than they get out and believe public services disproportionately benefit ‘others’: liberal professionals, the poor, benefit claimants, ethnic minorities, those in the biggest cities, migrants and asylum seekers – take your pick. That is especially so for low and middle earners. Remember at the last election, Labour held its working-class vote (socio-economic groups D+E) and its middle-class vote at the top (groups A + B), but experienced a massive swing to the Conservatives among low and middle earners.
That’s why Ed Miliband is right to focus on the squeezed middle. It’s why he’s right to align the interests of the worst off in society and low and middle earners behind the institutions that make us a fairer and more equal country. Social housing is one such institution and it needs to support those in the middle as well as those at the bottom.
The most successful progressive institutions in Britain are those which have broad and deep social support across many parts of society. Look at the uproar over the dismantling of the NHS – an uproar which may de-rail the government yet – compared to the near-silence over the dismantling of social housing.
To risk an over simplification: If the choice we make is to ‘defend’ social housing against access to it by those working on low incomes, we pit the bottom of society against the middle and the top. That’s an argument we’ll lose. If social housing supports the majority at the bottom and the middle, not just in theory but in practice, we win.
The choice is not between social housing for those in need versus social housing for those less in need, but between the existence of social housing as a public good versus its continued erosion and dismantling.
At the Labour Party Conference, at the many housing fringes and events, people attacked the lack of political will to make housing a priority, rightly identifying the root of the problems we face now. The view seemed to be that, until supply of new affordable homes dramatically increases, giving social housing to working people was a luxury we can’t afford.
They’ve got it the wrong way round: making social housing now a public good which serves the British people as a whole is a prerequisite to building the political will and public support for the dramatic policy changes we need.
That’s why councils should be free to balance the interests of low earners with those in housing need when deciding who gets social housing.
And, on some of the policy points that have been swirling around – let me address a few:
- Need and employment are not mutually exclusive. In most London Boroughs for example there are enough people in reasonable preference categories and in employment to take up the available lettings for many years to come.
- The rent levels in social housing are more beneficial to working tenants than those out of work. It doesn’t matter to an individual what the rent is if it’s covered by benefit. It does matter if you pay for it from your own means. We lessen the extent of the benefit trap hugely by giving working people or those in intermittent employment rents they can afford without recourse to the benefits system.
- Social housing is limited and there is a choice how we use this public good to best effect. Using it to support employment when these households might not otherwise be able to work is an impactful way to use this resource with wider social benefits. It isn’t ‘wasting’ it on people who don’t need it.
- It goes without saying that more homes must be built and that is the fundamental way out of these problems – as Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint would both argue. But that doesn’t mean we should live in a policy vacuum until then and make no choices. The supply we need will take a long time to come.