The Policy Exchange report “Ending Expensive Social Tenancies” is in the news this morning. The basic premise is that ”selling expensive social housing as it becomes vacant could create the largest social house building programme since the 1970s. The sales would raise £4.5 billion annually which could be used to build 80,000-170,000 new social homes a year and create 160,000-340,000 jobs a year in the construction industry.”
There is widespread concern that such a proposal would be a disaster, creating mono-cultural communities, making low paid employees travel further to work, and perhaps opening up local authorities to allegations of seeking electoral advantage – and most damningly, singularly failing to generate much in the way of new social housing.
First, this report begs the question “why does a Conservative think-tank suddenly seem to be enthusiastic about social housing?” One does not have to look far for a clue, as the report goes on to say that such a proposal would be ”extremely popular with all sections of society. 73% of people including social tenants think that people should not be given council houses worth more than the average property in a local authority. By 2:1 voters agree people should not be given council houses in expensive areas.”
Frankly, i simply don’t believe this polling. I think that the answer is very likely to be strongly influenced by how the question is framed. Housing minister Grant Shapps has already told local authorities that they should sell off their most expensive social housing, but there is a real difference between asserting that councils should sell the very small number of properties worth more than £1 million and advocating that the most expensive 25 per cent of social housing must go. The latter would be a policy entirely tailored to appeal to the right wing of the Conservative party.
Reasons why this policy would make the UK a more miserable place:
- There is compelling academic evidence that mixed communities are more at peace with themselves. Put in simple terms, it becomes harder to stereotype the Porsche-owner when you see them working long hours, or perhaps the one-parent family down when you know that they are better off without their abusive partner. This kind of real understanding is fostered when people live together in the same street.
- Segregating communities means that those engaged in service occupations have to travel further to work. This makes low paid workers poorer and increases emissions and congestion.
- when social housing is sold, there is an absolute guarantee that all the money will not be re-invetsed in social housing. First, the Government itself always takes a percentage of all sales revenue. Second, Government policy continues to be that local authorities will use a percentage of the revenue from sales to support their general activities. This means that the sale of an above-average property does not generate enough money to build a below-average replacement social housing unit. For example, the Regulatory Impact Assessment accompanying the Governmnt’s “Reinvigorating the Right to Buy” consultation suggested not a one-for-one replacement, but a ratio of about one new social home for each four sold!
- Most worryingly, there is a concern that such proposals could be used to generate electoral advantage by moving opposition voters. This proposal would need a rigorous political impact assessment in order to ensure that it would not open the door to a wave of Westminster-style social-cleansing scandals.
It is the business of think-tanks to think the unthinkable. Often it is the business of the rest of the UK to tell them why the unthinkable remains just that.
Touch stone website, 20 August 2012