You would have thought that Patrick Wintour on the Guardian was experienced enough to realise that a briefing from Grant Shapps and No 10 is a poor source for a major story. But the Guardian today splashes the tale that David Cameron is backing Shapps’ plan ‘to abolish housing rent subsidy for higher earners living in social housing’.
Wintour falls into several of Shapps’ well-rehearsed traps.
First, he fails to question the dodgy statistics Shapps is renowned for using. 6,000 social tenants earn more than £100,000. Really, who says? The truth is nobody knows, it’s a back of a fag packet figure and I could equally guess a much smaller number. And any move to make them pay more is likely to lead them to use the right to buy, so Shapps’ line that the new policy is designed to ‘use resources more efficiently’ is patent nonsense.
Second, he swallows the line about tenants being subsidised. Council tenants receive no cash subsidy, indeed the sector makes a profit. There is a capital subsidy for new housing association homes, but over their lifetime all such homes will make a healthy profit, including borrowing costs. That’s why building social housing is such a good deal. Wintour talks about ‘economic subsidy’. This is one of the Tories’ favourites. But why does the concept of economic subsidy (ie the difference between the price they pay and the market price) only apply to tenants? It equally applies to anything where state action moderates market prices. But if you told people their fuel costs or rail fares or water bills were subsidised, they’d laugh at you. Equally, the Tories never even acknowledge the subsidies that flow to people through thousands of tax reliefs. I never see the phrase ‘subsidised private sector pensions’, for example.
Third, Wintour buys an extraordinary line that ‘social housing has been increasingly taken up as an option by young professionals unable to afford to own their own home’. Really! Anyone who knows anything about the sector knows that’s just a joke.
Fourth, where’s Wintour’s challenge to the practicability of the scheme? How do you identify the supposed 6,000 without means testing all four million social tenants? It would be job creation on an awesome scale to even attempt such a task. Landlords do not keep information on tenants incomes – social housing is allocated on the basis of assessed housing need not an income test.
I could go on, but here’s the main point. The purpose of this story is to divert attention away from the real agenda for social rented housing. We saw the same thing in Hammersmith and Fulham last week when the Tories press released a story about an income restriction on new tenants, which got a lot coverage, thereby covering up a raft of other new policies aimed at slashing the amount of social rented housing in the borough. Like H&F, Shapps wants people to scrap over the crumbs whilst he sets about dismantling the whole sector. Deckchairs and Titanic come to mind.
The amount of social rented housing will be cut dramatically over the next few years. Virtually no new planning permissions for social rented homes. Many existing homes redesignated as higher rent properties. Many homes sold off at huge discounts. Estates sold off for private development without replacement of the social rented element. A few housing associations and a few councils are struggling valiantly to build some social rented homes here and there, but the numbers are tiny.
The Tories alternate between saying ‘there are too many rich people in social housing’ and ‘there are too many poor people in social housing’. What they mean is ‘social rented housing is wasted and won’t be needed in future’.
Like the total household benefit cap, the Government has spotted a seam of argument that sounds attractive, and that people will believe when it is amplified through the media. It’s even obvious from the ‘source’ that Wintour quotes: “It’s not right that high earners benefit from taxpayer-funded housing subsidy. Just as we have introduced a cap on housing benefit and welfare payments to make the system fairer, now we’re acting on social housing too.”
Is it unreasonable to expect the Guardian to shape up and be a bit more critical before publishing such nonsense and giving it credibility?