By regular guest blogger Monimbo
Once again the Daily Mail is the favoured news outlet for a government minister, and once again it fails to check if he’s actually right. This time the story is about 6,000 council tenants who allegedly earn more than £100,000 per year, and how Mr Shapps wants to make sure they either leave their homes or pay a market rent, because they are costing the taxpayer more than £100 million. Poor Frank Dobson is rolled out once more as the prime example.
Let’s take a look at some of the facts. First, the article says that not only do 6,000 council tenants earn more than £100k but that 720,000 earn more than the national average wage. What we know is that 18,000 council tenants were identified as earning more than £50k annually in the English Housing Survey, so it’s perfectly possible that Grant Shapps has got his staff to break these figures down further and has found that one third of this group earn over £100k. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. What is implausible is that 720,000 households earn above the average wage: the true figure of council tenants earning more than £20k annually is 405,000, and earning more than £30k is much smaller at 154,000. The Mail is confusing council tenants with all social tenants.
Now it’s important to remember that citing these figures does not mean that anyone knows where these 6,000 high earners actually are. The figures are based on sample surveys, grossed up to apply to all English households. Apart from a few celebrity cases like Frank, neither Mr Shapps or anyone else could identify the culprits.
Mr Shapps wants to introduce an upper income level above which tenants will have to pay full market rents. But the obstacles he faces are formidable: first, it needs legislation with some careful wording, then it needs a way of rewriting existing tenancy agreements to change the tenancy terms of households who have probably enjoyed them for many years, and then it needs to impose a means test on people who almost certainly have never had to reveal their incomes to the council (e.g. to claim housing benefit).
Finally, given that rent-setting is and for many years has been a power that rests with councils and not with government, he needs a way of telling Camden council to raise Frank’s rent. The irony, of course, is that he’s floating these plans at the very time when he’s giving councils even more freedom over their council housing finances.
The other part of the Mail’s story is, of course, that it’s the taxpayer who is subsidising these high earning tenants, and who will therefore get the benefit if they pay their full whack. Wrong on both counts. It might suit Mr Shapps in peddling the story to the Mail to woo their tax-paying readers, but as he well knows they don’t subsidise council housing. If high earners pay more, it’s councils and other tenants who will benefit. If high earners move out, which is what he and the Mail seem to want, there will be no savings at all, simply a new tenant paying the same rent. Of course it would free up a council house, but that isn’t a direct saving to the taxpayer.
There is sufficient confusion in the financial aspects of this story that I haven’t even touched on the arguments for having a number of better-off people in council housing, and I’m sure Red Brick readers are well aware of the case that can be made. The next time the Daily Mail links council estates with the riots or the chronically work-shy, it might pause to ask what the opposite might be. Having a few more people living in those estates who have good jobs and earn above the average wage, perhaps?