In the weeks following the election the Coalition had very little to say about housing. The budget announced restrictions on the local housing allowance on the back of a narrative about needing to rein in the vast amounts being spent on multi-bedroom properties. We are yet to see what the consequences of this will be. But there is cause for concern.
In recent days housing has suddenly emerged as a new battleground, both inside and outside the Coalition. On Tuesday we had David Milliband invading LibDem territory with his advocacy of a Mansion Tax. On Wednesday we had pronouncements from David Cameron and Grant Shapps on future policy directions for social housing policy.
This is an unlikely battleground for two reasons. First, it is an area of policy in which, as Sara Bedford has recently pointed out, the Conservative stated in the run up to the election that they were not proposing change. In the light of previous experiences with schools and the NHS, however, we are perhaps rapidly coming to realise quite what sort weight should be placed on such commitments.
Second, social housing has for many years been something of a policy backwater: vitally important to those affected, but not really the stuff that attracts front page headlines. Yet, the economic downturn and problems in the private housing market have resulted in rising waiting lists for social housing and more people with a personal interest in access to affordable housing.
So we have witnessed trailers for a series of policies.
Grant Shapps is continuing to press his ideas for national mobility schemes – The Freedom Pass and a new National Home Swap database – and has mooted the possibility of a “right to move” for social tenants, although this is currently “just an idea”.
Mobility schemes are a good thing. But their impact upon the social housing sector is always going to be modest. Low geographical mobility in social housing is not a major cause of worklessness among social tenants, for example. More important is the availability and security of the sort of jobs for which social tenants are qualified. Long distance mobility to access a relatively low skilled insecure job, while giving up your local social and family support networks, is a strategy that is only ever going to appeal to the few.
David Cameron, in contrast, has taken on “the biggy” by re-starting the conversation on security of tenure, even though his statements now appear not to qualify as Coalition policy.
It is not so long ago that John Hills’ report for the previous government tried to steer away from the suggestion that reducing security of tenure would deal meaningfully with problems facing social housing . Professor Hills argued for social landlords to be allowed to make a more varied offer to prospective tenants, tailored to their circumstances and needs.
The arguments here are complex and the priorities to be reconciled are incompatible. They are fundamentally about whose welfare we value more. Families in overcrowded substandard accommodation ‘deserve’ and are entitled to social housing that better suits their needs.
Important arguments around adequate housing, child development and lifetime opportunities can be invoked. Older people live in properties which are larger than they currently require, but which have been their family home for decades. Such long-standing residents can often provide stability, local social capital and community leadership in areas characterised by a high turnover of households and weak social ties.
Forcing people to leave social housing when they no longer ‘need’ it will result in further concentrations of poverty in the social rented sector. It will set up incentives against seeking to improve one’s circumstances – if it means risking one’s home. New structures to prevent abuse – the application of protection from eviction legislation to the social sector – would need to be put in place.
One can see a new branch of the Judicial Review industry opening up. Reducing security of tenure and expecting people to move out when they are assessed as no longer needing their current home could bring us squarely into Article 8 – Right to respect for Private and Family Life – territory.
The issue of access to the existing stock of social housing is important: it crystallizes the values of a society. It fundamentally shapes society and the sustainability of neighbourhoods and communities. But, we shouldn’t get distracted by rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
The more pressing housing question is where new affordable housing is going to come from in an era of fiscal austerity coupled with a new era of devolved planned, while avoiding a descent into local exclusionism and NIMBYism.
Alex is a Lib Dem supporter and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol