How have the Tories done it? They have made council housing waiting lists decline Just Like That (with apologies to Tommy Cooper) whilst, as David Cameron frequently reminds us, they doubled under Labour.
Kris Hopkins Tommy Cooper
The answer of course lies in who is allowed to apply. In this great era of localism, the Government decides who is definitely not eligible to join a waiting list (and therefore become a candidate for the ever shrinking supply of social housing). Contrary to popular myth and Daily Mail headlines, you can’t usually apply if you are from abroad or even if you are a British Citizen but have been ‘habitually resident’ abroad.
As Housing Minister Kris Hopkins (pictured) explains: ‘In December 2013 we published statutory guidance for local authorities to ensure that only those with a well-established residence and local associations qualify for tax-payer subsidised social housing’.
Even if you are eligible, the local council might still decide that you cannot register on the waiting list. In a fascinating piece in today’s Guardian, Hilary Osborne shows how councils have slashed their waiting lists – which will be celebrated by David Cameron in due course. Havering council has hacked its waiting list by three-quarters ‘in a bureaucratic sweep of the pen’, down from 12,000 to less than 3,000. Hammersmith and Fulham have magiced away – Tommy would be proud – most of their list – down from over 8,000 to a mere 768 in a single year. Their method is to apply a rule restricting eligibility (to join the waiting list, not to be allocated a home) to people who have lived in the area for a period of time – 5 years in H&F’s case.
The doubling of waiting lists under Labour – a clever but meaningless jibe – is also explained by eligibility rules and not by anything real taking place in the housing market. Labour took the view that waiting lists should be open to pretty much anyone who wanted to apply. They therefore became not just a measure of council-defined need but of people-defined demand. They became a measure of how many people wanted to live in a social rented home in a particular area. The fact that they soared shows that social housing is not just for the desperate but is a tenure that is attractive to an enormous range of people. If supply existed, it would be the tenure of choice for millions of people.
There were arguments for and against what Labour did. It was a worthy move against the kind of bureaucratic restrictions that the Tories seem to enjoy applying. It had the potential to boost geographical mobility – despite everything the Tories say about people moving to find work, their restrictions make this harder for people on low incomes. Against this is the fair argument that there is no point in registering people who have no hope of getting a house or flat because demand and supply are so out of kilter. Of course this argument is even stronger if the Tories get their way and squeeze social rented housing out of the system altogether.
Waiting lists remind us that there is a huge gulf between supply and demand. But in the next Election campaign, we will hear a lot about how they doubled under Labour and halved under the Tories. Regrettably, there will be no Tommy Cooper around to remind us how it was done.