“Social Housing is only for the poor” – revealing, unpleasant, counterproductive

I drafted this piece just before George Osborne’s recent budget (you can see my piece on that at http://www.cwuyouth.org/view-blog.html?blog_id=417 ). Then other stuff got in the way and it languished on my laptop for a bit.  But housing is an issue that never goes away, and the Price Waterhouse report, published yesterday (and reported at http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jul/22/pwc-report-generation-rent-to-grow-over-next-decade), makes dreadful reading.  So here’s my take on social housing and why the current approach is just wrong.

Like many, my wife’s Gran was bombed out of dockside Birkenhead in the last world war. My father-in-law and his 8 siblings were made homeless by a Rachman-esque landlord from an equally impoverished terrace in the winter of 1937.

Many families were rehoused in then new social housing in the Wirral (Leasowe, not West Kirby, before you ask) after the war.  It was clear to them that this was better than anything they had lived in before and anything they could have expected to occupy then or in the foreseeable future.

They also understood that the four walls and roof was as much a utility as electricity, gas and water.  Something you need, not something to make a profit from.  Something you give back when you have finished with it – so that someone else can use it.

That didn’t make it any less of a home. That didn’t diminish any sense of responsibility or pride. It didn’t stop a wide variety of occupations   being represented by the population of the new estate. My in laws were about as working class as you can get, but by no means were all their neighbours.

So George Osborne’s “social housing is for poor people” is as counter-productive as it is unpleasant as it is revealing

It’s counter-productive because Britain needs homes – all sorts of homes: to buy, to rent privately and social housing.  How to increase the housing stock was a leading issue in the General Election and it is the number one issue in London’s Mayoral campaign.  The shortage is such that even promises to build 250,000 new homes a year  will not put much of a wrecking ball through the demand.

Pressure group Generation Rent (www.generationrent.org)   have produced research that shows in 104 constituencies, renting privately outstrips home ownership.  And yet MP Karen Buck’s Homes (Fit for Human Habitation) Bill is the first serious attempt to get statutory regulation across the UK on this issue.

Social housing is a key part of the supply side mix here; we need more of it.  So it is surely counter-productive to consign social housing to a low income lacuna,   where inhabitation is a mark of failure or hardship.

And in any  event, local authority  housing  statistics  for England and Scotland  for 2013  showed 1.9m  families  were waiting for  council accommodation.

And that is what makes the Chancellor’s  designation  unpleasant. Scrap-heaping 1.9 million families is a lot of people.  A lot of people to disregard, hold in disdain, and mark out as failures.

It is also  an unpleasant, unjustified and  unfair  description  for the  people  in  do their utmost,  every  day,  to  maintain, service and  protect  social  housing  –  and who make the arguments  for  it to have its rightful place  in the  portfolio of accommodation  options in Britain.  Is their work unimportant?  Or of no value or importance?

Because Shelter   report that 17% of families in England live in social housing.  Even more on the Osbornonian scrap-heap.  Even more  people stigmatised, ghetto-ised. Because if social housing “is only for the poor” then you surely create a vicious cycle of under-investment and increasing social cost.

And this is the revealing nature of the Chancellor’s view.  If he  genuinely  believes  that the  Bevan-ite  vision of  a  typical, average  British  residential street is outdated or philosophically inappropriate,  then he is necessarily saying that  millions of  Britons  are  beyond redemption, in the  social and economic wilderness?

But is this not the view of the government anyway?  Private housing good, social housing bad.  Like Private sector good, public service bad.  Low tax good, public investment bad.

Now we see that George Osborne’s analysis is not new but a continuation in a series of steps taking us towards an apartheid Britain. Separation along interlocking and reinforcing economic characteristics.  As Neil Kinnock said as long ago as 1992 “I warn you not to be young, not to grow old, not to fall ill,”

As we approach Budget day, it is an ill wind indeed.

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