In England today 250,000 households are officially designated as overcrowded whilst a further 450,000 households are unable to easily downsize from larger homes. The government thinks it has a solution to this problem, one that involves a radical change to social housing policy and that may yet derail the coalition.
Under its proposals the government wants to create a ‘freedom pass’ for people living in social housing allowing them to move easily to another property anywhere in the country. The new National Home Swap scheme will, in theory, allow people living in social housing to have greater flexibility when it comes to relocating in search of work.
Their freedom to move from one part of the country to another may be improved; the security of the roof over their heads may well not be though, because the government also plans to end council house tenancies that are held for life. Existing tenants well keep their homes, but any new ones will have then years in council housing at most before being handed over to the private sector.
Speaking at a question and answer session in Birmingham this week Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘There is a question mark about whether, in future should we be asking when you are given a council home is it for a fixed period’ given, he said that people may, over the term of their tenancy move to a better paid job ‘looking at a more flexible system makes sense.’
Housing Minister Grant Shapps added to this later by saying that many council tenants were ‘trapped in their own homes’ as local authorities struggle to deal with ever growing waiting lists.
He went on to say: ‘This cannot continue, as we work to tackle the record budget deficit we must ensure vulnerable people benefit from but don’t become trapped by the safety net social housing provides.’
The enthusiasm of the Tory half of the coalition for reforming social housing does not seem to be shared by the Liberal Democrats, for whom Simon Hughes told the BBC’s World at One programme the plans were ‘a priministerial idea, it has no more validity yet and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it could work.’
Seizing on the fact that the two partners in what former Tory leadership candidate David Davis described as the ‘Brokeback Coalition’ were heading for a lover’s tiff on this issue Labour’s Bob Ainsworth said: ‘proper government cannot be conducted if coalition partners are divided on such an important issue.’
Make no mistake there is a real problem with social housing in this country, in fact there are two problems.
The first is the chronic shortage of social housing at a time when getting a mortgage or even affording to pay rent to a private landlord is growing ever more out of the reach of many Britons, a problem that has been exacerbated by the ‘right to buy’ legislation of the 1980’s about which the Tory party still feel such misguided pride. Short tenancies and the freedom to move around will do nothing to increase the stock of public housing; all it will do is move people around from one dodgy private landlord to another.
The real solution to the shortage of social housing lies in giving councils the funds and the freedom to start building again for the first time in decades, an unlikely prospect as the public purse strings grow tighter by the year.
The second and equally pressing problem is the quality of the housing available. Only this week the Joseph Rownatree trust published research claiming that many people living in council housing feel they are seen as ‘ the lowest of the low’ by the rest of the population. There is, as Lynsey Hanley points out in her excellent book on the subject something about the grim architecture of post war housing estates that causes people to build up a ‘wall in the head’, to willingly limit their own options and, in the wrong set of circumstances, to lose the ability to exert any kind of agency over their lives.
Addressing these problems requires money and strength of will; they need steely David Cameron to go in to bat against the Troy backwoodsmen on the sort of social issues that he advocated in his cuddly ‘Dave’ incarnation. The likelihood of that happening is pretty small as is a fight being put up by an already compromised Liberal Democrat party, and so something else is needed; an engaged and effective opposition.
It is right that Labour have highlighted the potential for this issue to split the coalition, it is the job of an opposition party to find the chinks in the government’s armour, but they must go beyond doing just that. They must, for a start heed the findings of a YouGov poll this week which suggested that they embrace the ‘big society’ in order to regain the trust of the public.
It is a fact so simple as to be blindingly obvious to a party that isn’t numbed by the snail race to choose its next leader. Labour values, the ones the party had before it fell into the hands of Tony Blair and the marketing men, fit comfortably into the ‘big society’ in the way Conservative ones never could.
When it won the vote of middle England back in the 1990’s New Labour did so because it represented an alternative to Tory sleaze and arrogance, a good way to go about winning back the trust it lost over the past thirteen years might be to take up the battle for decent housing that is affordable by all.